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July 31, 2007



Photo by Max Newell

Last Tuesday, I got to meet some old friends. I don't know just how long I've been corresponding with Bostonians Amy and Max Newell, but it's pushing three years. Nor do I recall how I came upon Amy's Web log, The Biscuit Report, a site focusing on the Bush Administration's sick venture into torture. We've been writing, chatting, and even telephoning ever since, but on Tuesday we finally got to shake hands.

The Newells were paying a visit to an old friend in Park Slope, and when I heard that they were coming, I naturally thought about hopping on a southbound train. It would be much easier to move me from one borough to another than for them to bring their two children - Ari, four, and Aya, seven months - into Manhattan. So I thought. But Ari's parents wanted him to experience the Guggenheim Museum, so we agreed to meet at the Barnes & Noble just above the 86th Street subway station. (Max, who shares my interest in transit, asked if anyone still refers to the once-distinct subway lines as the IRT, the BMT, and the IND, and I had to admit that only fossils like me do so.)

We had a grand summer afternoon. At the Guggenheim, we took the elevator to the top of the ramp and then moseyed on down, urged on by Ari's sweet impatience to see the "pond" at the bottom (which he hadn't noticed when we were standing right next to it upon arrival). Then we walked the few blocks to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where our sole objective was to have lunch in the child-friendly cafeteria. Then we had a walk in Central Park. On two occasions, Amy and I sat on benches, with Aya in her stroller: first, at Conservatory Water, when Ari led his father on an expedition around the perimeter of the boating pond, and, second, just to the west of the Bethesda Fountain, while Ari commanded the sort of big rock that draws little boys like a magnet and that, from time to time, sends them to the hospital. Max was the obliging vizier to Ari's sultan. "You're getting to see a lot of Max," Amy sighed, "from a distance."

Bow Bridge, one of the Park's beauties, was just a few steps from our second perch, but it was ill-advised of me to lead the Newells across it, because what's on the other side is the Ramble. The Ramble is no longer dangerous, at least by daylight, but its paths are evidently not a Central Park Conservancy priority, and navigating its hills and dales with a stroller was not amusing. Nor was walking along one of the drives in blazing sun. Eventually, though, we found ourselves at 85th and Fifth. Soon after that, we found ourselves in my flat, with a nice cup of tea.

Perhaps because we were at My House, it was here that Ari decided that I was not just a transient adult. Could he jump up and down on the sofa? No. Okay; could he slither across it like a worm? Fine, but not if his "slithering" was more like the hopping of a toad. I can't tell you how much I enjoyed these negotiations. For me, there is nothing so exhilarating as engaging with a bright child of Ari's age, because under no other circumstances do I get to see human intelligence openly arranging itself. Amy and I agreed that people who complain about children who "test limits" are missing the point; the child who is capable of a maddening barrage of finely-tailored requests for permission - if I can't do that, can I do this? - is simply ingenious. Ari Newell is very ingenious. He's a good fellow, too; his lovely sister already adores him.

Confucius says (on page one!) "To have friends coming from afar: is this not a delight?"

July 30, 2007

Bush Can Read!


Like you, I am distressed to learn that The Weekly World News is folding. Now George will have nothing to read every week. Seriously, I loved the paper. Who else could deliver headlines such as "DINOSAURS - HONKED JUST LIKE BUICKS"? Do you remember the story about the overweight lady who was compelled to purchase two airplaine seats, because of her "titanic tush?" Oh, the laughs.

August begins early at the Daily Blague - it begins today! I spent so much energy on podcasting last week that I never got round to writing up a book. I never got round to reading one. Not until yesterday, anyway. So I offer no link, this morning, to Portico. You wouldn't follow it if I did. It's summertime!

Come September, there will be a new Daily Blague, complete (one hopes), with podcasts that you can actually hear without maxing the volume. "Sing out, Louise," as one friend wrote. Yesterday, Miss G gave me some thoughts about how to make podcasts downloadable (she also asked if I'd come along to a ball game in Coney Island! Bien sur!). The new site is already up. All I have to do is massage the style sheet - doesn't that sound like fun?

July 29, 2007

Wet Weekend

For the second weekend in a row, Kathleen decided not to go in to the office. She has plenty to do, but she finds that she’s more productive after she has taken a few days off. For the first time in almost two years, she can actually fit everything into a lengthy five-day week.

We celebrated in various ways. On Friday night, we went to the last showing of No Reservations. Imagine, two movies (for me) in one day, and both of them excellent. Then, last night, we had dinner at Orsay. Orsay is a Franco-Upper East Side establishment that’s rather posher than a bistro but much more relaxed than one of the old temples of gastronomy. I repeated the dinner that I had when we went there a few weeks ago: gazpacho followed by a terrine of duck pâté. Accompanying the pâté was a small container of seasoned fleur du sel – and never have I found salt so delicious. Kathleen sprinkled some on her salmon and was also transported.

If Kathleen can stay away from the office on Sunday, so can I. Aside from writing this entry, I’ve nothing to do with my day job. Well, not directly. I’ve read the Book Review, of course, and most of the Times. I’ve finished one novel, Min Jin Lee’s Free Food For Millionaires, and begun another, Andrew O’Hagan’s Be Near Me. Next up: Christian Jurgensen’s The Exception.

Here’s hoping that you had a good weekend as well.

July 28, 2007


The sound of music creeped in my ears this morning, as I was sorting through the Times. I whistled for a bit before recognizing what I was whistling as Brahms's Violin Concerto. Suddenly mad to hear it (this is why I have a lot of CDs - I never know what I'm going to be mad to hear), I put on Itzhak Perlman's recording for EMI. And although I knew every note, the concerto was entirely new. I had never heard this before. How voluptuous, how art nouveau the music sounded! Could this really be Mr Last Classicist? Was it possible that Brahms was all about nothing but pleasure?

Moments like this, when a familiar thing re-presents itself in an almost shatteringly new light, don't happen often anymore, and I'm treasuring it.


Reading A O Scott's robustly unfavorable review of Laurent Tirard's Molière yesterday morning, I reconsidered seeing the picture, but in the end I stuck to my plans. My response was so different from Mr Scott's that I can only conclude that his French isn't very good. I will say that Molière is a movie for people who are already familiar with the great French writer's oeuvre. It is witty in a way that the English rarely are and we Americans never. This is not to say that it's empty or stylized; if anything, it fills Molière's classical vessels with strong contemporary sentiment. Perhaps that is what Mr Scott meant by saying that the movie seems "designed for immediate obsolescence." But I loved it.


July 27, 2007

Simon Head on Information Technology

It was not hard to decide which of this week's stories I wanted to showcase as a Friday Front, but it wasn't clear that I was ever going to get round to writing about it. Yesterday's podcast caused a tremendous upheaval in my already disorganized everyday life. If the equipment had been easy to install and stable once installed, that would have been one thing, but it was neither, and I won't be up to speed for a few weeks. I still don't have a clue about how to make it possible to download podcasts.

Simon Head on Information Technology, in The New York Review of Books.

July 26, 2007

A New Era

Good morning. Welcome to my first podcast. I hope that you will provide plenty of feedback, about the production values if nothing else.

There is still a lot to learn, let me tell you.

¶  A New Look at the Cloisters.

UPDATE: Many, many thanks for the kind comments. When I tried to re-record the page at a higher volume, a host of bugs gummed up the works. I have been more or less tearing my hair out for the past twenty-four hours (with breaks for sleep and martinis), but at the moment, progress looks good. I'm aiming to have mastered podcasting by the end of August, when I'll be inaugurating the new Daily Blague.

July 25, 2007

Well Put

From Mark Schmitt's Op-Ed piece, "Too Much Information," about the ridiculousness of lengthy policy statements (eg health-care proposals) in electoral politics:

We don’t give our presidents total power to enact policy. They have to work with a Congress made up of people with their own views and constituencies. Does anyone really think that a plan cooked up by a bunch of smart 20-somethings after a couple of all-nighters amid the empty pizza boxes and pressures of a campaign is superior to what could be developed with the full resources of the federal government and open Congressional hearings and debate?



So, did anyone see Damages last night? It's the new legodrama on FX that stars Glenn Close. Isn't it the most amazing piece of crap?

To be sure, Glenn Close is magnificent in the role of Patty Hewes, the formidable plaintiffs' attorney who will do anything to bring her lawsuits to victory. When she's onscreen, it doesn't matter that the show is rubbish. Ms Close long ago perfected a Wicked Queen persona that is compulsively watchable. But when she's not onscreen...

For example, when Hollis Nye (Philip Bosco) sonorously informs Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne) that the contract that she's about to sign (but won't) guarantees her employment for five years - or maybe it wasn't Mr Bosco but another actor in the scene - you gag. The law firm that hires associates on five-year contracts has yet to be invented. Associates are employees-at-will who can be fired without notice. (Partners are only somewhat harder to get rid of.) The scene, though brief, is utter confection, a tepid reheating of stock material. This is law as people who have never dealt with law firms envision it.

Damages isn't about law, though. It's about the price women pay for pursuing worldly - as opposed to maternal - ambition. Damages' price is preposterously exaggerated. Patty Hewes, although brilliant and glamorous, is obviously a vampire as well, and she will sooner or later sink her canines into Ellen's neck. Isn't that why the opening scene shows Ellen fleeing from an apartment, covered in blood? And then catatonically slumped in an interrogation room? Excelling in the footsteps of Patty Hewes will strip you of your humanity. Damages stokes the ancient resentment of powerful women that attributes to them crimes that even Attila the Hun would balk at.

Leaving for the office this morning, Kathleen told me that she might be out of touch this afternoon, meeting with her five personal shoppers at Bergdorf and waiting for Barbara Walters to show up in her dressing room. Seriously, though, she is going to ask her paralegal if she has ever seen an attorney standing in his office in boxer shorts. Kathleen certainly hasn't.

The difference in dramatic quality between Damages and Mad Men is huge. By the end of the summer, will friendships and marriages have foundered because of divided loyalties? Kathleen and I are safe, at any rate. She may never see Mad Men (although she'd like to - but she's so busy with those personal shoppers), but we're united in our scorn for Damages.

In the Book Review

This week's cover story reviews a book that is destined to find its way onto my shelves (which one is a mystery): The Book that George Built, Wilfred Sheed's "big rich stew of an homage that makes you want to listen to Gershwin and Berlin and Porter and Arlen all over again." And how nice to have a "George" in the title that doesn't refer to you-know who.

The other book that I'd like to read, sort of, is Legacy of Ashes, Tim Weiner's withering history of the CIA. Only sort of, though, because I'm not sure that I really want to know just how incompetent the Agency is.

There are three Noes this week. Two are bad books, and two are political autobiographies, but they're not necessarily the same two. I never thought I'd be putting a review by BHL at the bottom of my report, but then I'm not sure that what he has written is actually a book review.

Here to Stay.

July 24, 2007

A New Look at The Cloisters


Last Friday, Eric and I went up to he Cloisters. Visiting this offshoot of the Metropolitan Museum of Art has become an annual event. Given good weather - and Friday's weather was perfect - the visit is so completely agreeable that it's impossible to tell whether The Cloisters itself or the park surrounding it was the destination.

The Cloisters is one of New York's most notable institutions. It is the most comprehensive assemblage of medieval European architecture outside of Europe. The ancient bits have been built into a sympathetic structure, with medieval-looking limestone interiors, that is laid out to facilitate a walking tour through successive centuries. "Written in stone," it is both old and new at the same time; from the moment you enter the Froville Arcade, time doesn't so much stop as gel. If you have known the museum for as long as I have - at least forty years - it is beguilingly easy to tick off the rooms in order. Every once in a while, something is moved, but The Cloisters goes on, as if it really were an opulent monastery in medieval France.

But then the jaded eye blinks and begins to see again. There are changes everywhere. They're small, for the most part, but they add up to the conclusion that a new abbot is in charge, so to speak. James J Rorimer is no longer directing the museum. (Nor is Thomas Hoving still an Assistant Curator!) Comparing the guidebook that I've very luckily held on to from the Sixties with the one that was published two years ago reveals some interesting shifts.

The Cloisters, in short, has a history of its own.

A New Look at the Cloisters.

Photo by Eric Patton.

July 23, 2007

Morning News

¶ My problem with freedom, in a nutshell: "Fatalities are, above all, a reflection of the type of dog that is popular at a given time among people who want to own an aggressive status symbol." (From Ian Urbina's "States Try to Weigh Safety With Dog Owners's Rights."

¶ Stanley Milgram's notorious psychology experiments in the early Sixties teach us that most people will do terrible things if they believe that they're acting under legitimate orders. George W Bush has been running a similar experiment at Guantánamo. Reading the story of one reservist's protest ("Military Insider Becomes Critic of Hearings at Guantánamo")  is sickening not because of the terrible abuses of justice that are clearly routine at the off-campus site, but because of the readiness of so many military jerks to pop up and defend the program. There seems to be nothing that the Go Along To Get Along brass won't say, as long as that's what the professor in the White House

The Classical World

When I was a student, the classical world - everything from Gilgamesh to the Dark Ages - bored me silly. I didn't see the people of Greece and Rome as human beings. No, they were teachers, people who wanted me to do better. It never occurred to me that they had no idea that we were (and are) their future. I really thought they knew. The teachers did, of course.

I did everything I could think of to reduce my exposure to classical antiquity. This was largely a matter of avoiding Latin classes. But by the time I got to prep school, I was already sufficiently dubious about my resistance to buy a Latin textbook and try to teach myself something on the side. Nowadays, of course, I am sickened by the thought of the legacy that I might have enjoyed (just as I enjoy the legacy of France's Grand Siècle). But I regarded myself  as very clever when I was in school.

The Classical World.

July 22, 2007

Out and About

This morning, I surprised Kathleen with breakfast in bed. The usual things on the big plate: soft-boiled egg, sausages, and a yummy fresh croissant. But instead of cranberry juice and grapefruit, we had orangeade and watermelon.

A few hours later, I had breakfast all over again, in the form of brunch. Eggs Benedict at Nice-Matin, the snappy eatery at Amsterdam and 79th. Kathleen lured me to the West Side with the prospect of an afternoon meal in a different part of town. Also, there were shops to visit. In the Endicott, behind the Natural History Museum, there's a shop called Pondicherri. They sell Indian fabrics and knick-knacks. They've lost their lease, and everything must go. I picked up fourteen fabric swatches that are just big enough to use as napkins. Even if they don't go together in the strictest sense, they get along nicely. A dollar apiece! Badly needed. It has been a long time since I bought everyday cotton napkins, and it shows.

At another shop that we visited, I forgot about and didn't see the step up to the pavement as I was leaving. My left hand jerked downward into my pocket with such force that it ripped apart about five inches of seam. It was not a pleasant form of ventilation, and now I must perform the ritual casting-off of torn trousers.

You should have heard Kathleen sputtering this morning, reading this story about virtual pets called Webkinz, and how Mom has to take care of them when the kids go off to summer camp...

July 21, 2007

Mon Meilleur Ami

What I love most about IMDb is its power to relieve those headaches that come on when I'm sure that I've seen an actor before, but can't for the life of me place him or, more usually, her. It's more usually her because women can transform themselves utterly simply by radically rethinking their hair. I don't know how long it would have taken me to figure out that Julie Gayet, who appears in Patrice Leconte's Mon Meilleur Ami, is also in Un Monde Presque Paisible, Michel Deville's intensely lovely 2002 feature.

Daniel Auteuil is certainly keeping busy. He was in four movies last year, of which two, La Doublure and Mon Meilleur Ami, have been released here. Why does it take so long? Are subtitles that difficult to whip up?

I already know what I'm going to see next week. Barring unforeseen obstacles, my Friday movie will be Molière, starring Romain Duris.

Mon Meilleur Ami.

July 20, 2007

Mad Men

If you're a regular reader, you know that I never watch television. And that's true. Except tonight. Tonight, I am watching Mad Men. I am watching the re-run of the first episode. Jon Hamm is frighteningly good as a thirty-something account executive on the make. His character, Don Draper, is brilliant at advertising because he's open to despair.

But the real treat is the total holiday from political correctness. Have you ever seen so many smokers? And when was the last time anybody talked to a secretary, even nicely, as Don and his associates do? I was twelve in 1960. More to the point, I had my first summer job on Wall Street four years later, when everybody looked pretty much the same as they do in Mad Men. I am so not nostalgic! The glory of the show is that it's safely imprisoned at AMC. It's not real anymore!

By the way, whaddya think about Michael Vick?

Kevin Baker on Rudolph Giuliani, in Harper's

Kevin Baker's warning, in the current Harper's, about the unsuitability of Rudy Giuliani for the White House, ends with a fairly gratuitous basing of the current administration. That is, it's unnecessary to Mr Baker's essay. At the same time, however, it constitutes a magnificent if brief catalogue raisonné of Bush's crimes against civilization, charged with a stark power that, unimaginably, surpasses everything that one has already read and thought.

The worst excesses of the bush regime have stemmed directly from its leader's character - that is, its rampant cronyism; its arrogance and egotism; its peremptory, bullying tone and methods; its refusal to brook criticism from within or without; its frighteningly authoritarian impulses; its need to create enemies as a means of governing; its impulsiveness and naïveté; its outright contempt for the law; and its truly staggering ability to substitute its own versions of what it wishes the world to be for any recognition of objective reality.

Kevin Baker on Rudolph Giuliani, in Harper's.

July 19, 2007

Morning News

Thank heavens, Fossil Darling survived yesterday's steam pipe explosion. He wasn't anywhere near Grand Central Terminal yesterday, but hope does spring eternal. I spoke to him an hour ago, and he's just fine - isn't that nice.

If I don't worry much about terrorist attacks on New York, it's not because of optimism. It's because I live in a badly ageing city. The place is falling apart without any help from Osama. The one thing that we Gothamites share with the rest of the United States is a restless discomfort with the concept of maintenance. Upkeep. Do we have to?

It's  great to have Gail Collins back as an Op-Ed columnist. She gives great smackdown.

McCain campaigns have a history of misjudging the public. His advisers firmly believed his heroism as a prisoner of war would win him piles of votes. While that sounds perfectly rational, the fact is that with the exception of a few generals who actually ran a war, voters haven’t awarded points for military valor since we stopped having Whigs.

Here's a sentence for the ages: A O Scott on the new film, Hairspray.

The songs, by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, are usually adequate, occasionally inspired, and rarely inane.

Faint praise on steroids!

I saw an old movie last night. Random Harvest. One of those titles that I've always heard but never seen. Greer Garson, Ronald Colman. World War I. Amnesia, shell-shock. MGM house style almost suffocates the story before it can get going, but the atmosphere of cliché is agreeably perfumed by the two really magnificent performances.

The death of opera tenor Jerry Hadley (who sang Flamand at the first performance of Richard Strauss's Capriccio that I got to see) is strangely upsetting.

July 18, 2007

In the Book Review

The most enticing book in this week's Book Review is Andrew O'Hagan's novel, Be Near Me, and I've got a copy in my shopping basket at Amazon. Other appealing titles are Shadow of the Silk Road and Island of the Lost. I was perplexed by Roy Blount Jr's review of the Library of America's new collection, American Food Writing, which I had been sure that I'd want to have. Not so much!

The Way West.


July 17, 2007


This afternoon, an idea that was born in pique took root in deeper soil. I thought of those Vietnamese monks who burned themselves. Immolation.

I'm a gifted writer, I think, but what difference does that make in this Bush-addled world? Why say anything at all when the Stupids are in charge? (My contempt, really a kind of fear, for people of average or lower intelligence cannot be concealed.)

What if I were to plant myself in the lobby of this very busy building and drink a tumbler of bleach? It would be an awful death, hideously painful, but I would have announced my protest in advance. I would, as a child of Catholic teaching, "offer it up." To you. Stop watching television.

I'd want to be very sure that there was nothing that anyone could do to save me.

Morning News

Somewhere during my teens, I had an epiphany: I realized that the Soviet Union was really just Russia, under all that ideology. A harsh country hospitable to thieves and thugs. Reading Sarah Lyall's story about "deteriorating" relations between Russia and the United Kingdom brought a smile to my lips, despite all the polonium. Just as George Bush is a spoiled and sour frat boy - nice try, David, but no cigar for you - so Vladimir Putin is a gang leader in a tie. Democracy has advanced from childhood (patriarchal leaders who know best) to adolescence (popular zits with car keys). Will the planet survive?

You have to love the picture of Louisiana Senator David Vitter (O Editors: Rep or Dem?). Wendy Vitter's discomfort is very Walker Evans.


My favorite story is the clip about a whispered but overheard conversation that Hillary had with John. A totally mean-girls sort of pow-wow. "We should have a smaller group." I loved it. There really is no getting out of the high school cafeteria.


Last night, I finished reading Alexander Chee's fine first novel, Edinburgh. Then I wrote to the author, who happens to be at the MacDowell colony at the moment. I had first come across his work in From Boys to Men. But it was someone's recently mentioning him at a blog that prompted me to order his book from Amazon. Who could that someone be? It didn't take long to identify the evilganome - although I can't for the life of me locate the particular entry.

Edinburgh starts off brightly, with a successful singing audition, and it holds this tone ever more tightly as the story very shortly takes a turn for the horrific. The writing is lyrical but firmly controlled. Attention is required: the terrible things are only mentioned once, in a flash, and if you're not careful you might skim over them.

Mr Chee has a new book, Queen of the Night, coming out soon*, and I am going to wait for it before writing up Edinburgh, which I may re-read after Queen. I do, however, want to share this magnificent paragraph.

Do you remember what it was like, to be young? You do. Was there any innocence there? No. Things were exactly what they looked like. If anyone tries for innocence, it's the adult, moving forward, forgetting. If innocence is ignorance of the capacity for evil, then it's what adults have when they forget what it's like to be a child. When they look at a child and think of innocence they are thinking of how they can't remember what that feels like. 

I recommend this book very highly.

* Autumn 2008.

July 16, 2007

Temper, temper

For years, the washers and driers in the laundry room on each floor of our building took quarters - more and more of them as time went by. That was a nuisance, but in the end I'd rather go back than use the cash cards now required. The cash cards can be loaded only via machines that ingest $20 bills. They are very picky about the bills.

Instead of taking my wallet downstairs when I went to collect the mail, I slipped a twenty into my pocket. The elevator ride was long, with so many stops that I had to close my book to make room. The part of the lobby where the money machine is located was a nest of yakking moms and querulous kids.

The money machine wouldn't take my twenty. I kept trying. Then the bill fluttered to the floor - followed quickly by the (empty) cash card. I was so overtaken by disgust with my housing situation  (I am SO TIRED of strollers, their occupants, and their operators) that I slammed the book onto the floor, making quite a pop. The lobby went completely silent. I scurried away intemperately.

The Vitamin B-12 injections have been working wonders, but I see that there are limits.

The Cult of the Amateur

As a technical amateur - nobody's paying me to do "this website thingy" - I felt morally obligated to read Simon Keen's somewhat screedish The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet Is Killing Our Culture. For most of the first half of the book, I thought I was reading a rant. For most of the second half, however, I was persuaded that the anti-authoritarian propensity behind so much "Web 2.0" talk is not only childish but damaging.

Mr Keen's book does not offer much in the way of solutions. Even he cannot conceal the fact that current delivery systems for creative cultural work are moribund. The Internet in general and the Blogosphere in particular have blossomed because established cultural institutions don't know how to reach young people - probably because the people who run them don't really understand computers or the Internet. I hope that Mr Keen's book will come to be regarded as the excellent diagnosis of a crisis that was ultimately contained and corrected.

The Cult of the Amateur.

July 15, 2007

At My Kitchen Table: Lemonade

Kathleen is crazy about lemonade. She likes it very, very tart. I've taken up making a quart of it for her every weekend. As Kathleen does not care for cold beverages, I leave the container on the counter. Kathleen drinks it all long before it spoils.

Ingredients: five or six lemons, a third of a cup of sugar, and water. Some cooking involved!


July 14, 2007


Okay, here's what happened. I had a long and, in his word, "bibulous" lunch with Éduoard on Thursday. Among other things, we talked about Transformers, which I couldn't believe he'd been to see. But his copain had wanted to go. "I've seen much worse," he confided, and then he went on to tell me about a very funny scene involving the actress Julie White. Well, how bad could the movie be?

Getting home shortly past six, I was in a dangerously effervescent state of mind. Kathleen was going to work late, but the idea of spending the evening alone was bleakness itself. Unable to rustle up a dinner companion, I decided to go to the movies. The only thing showing up here that I hadn't seen was - Transformers. So I went, and I had a great time. It was definitely a movie to see after a long and bibulous lunch in a not-overcrowded theatre.

I fully planned to see something less CGI-assisted on Friday morning, but after a late dinner with Kathleen at which we got to know a neighbor who happened to be sitting outside the restaurant where we met ("May I join you?" "Sure!"), I didn't get to bed until late, and when I woke up I was suffering, if not the hangover I deserved, a complete lack of endorphins. Leaving the apartment was inconceivable. At the same time, I had no idea what there was to write about Transformers. It was too difficult to think about. I pulled up the covers and read R K Narayan's delightful 1958 novel, The Guide.


July 13, 2007

The Times and the Green Zone

The other day, Édouard, at Sale Bête, noted that the Times wasn't reporting the recent mortar attacks on the Green Zone.

Bien que le Times n’en parle pas sur la une, il est intéressant de noter que la Zone Verte a été atteinte d’une trentaine de tirs de mortier hier, et que trois personnes ont été tuées.

I wondered about this, too, having read of the strikes in Maureen Dowd's column. What gives?

Complicity at the New York Times.

July 12, 2007

Così XI

The other day, at Barnes & Noble in Union Square, following another great brunch at Blue Water Grill with Ms G and her Beau, I found a recording of Così fan tutte that I didn't know existed. (Or, if I knew, once upon a time, it was long ago, and I'd completely forgotten it.) Recorded in Berlin in 1962, it features a great cast under the direction of Eugen Jochum, who in my opinion didn't record nearly enough of the Viennese classics. (Or, if he did, they weren't released here.) Here's the cast:

Fiordiligi Irmgard Seefried
Dorabella Nan Merriman
Despina Erika Köth
Ferrando Ernst Haefliger
Guglielmo Hermann Prey
Don Alfonso Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau

I've only listened to the recording once, so I won't characterize it, but it struck me as musical, as if Jochum had set out to make the most beautiful recording of the opera. Così is generally regarded as one of Mozart's very best scores, and the arias are indeed wonderfully colored by instrumental flashes. But Così is above all a sublimely funny opera, and in comedy timing is everything.

How would I rank this recording alongside the ten others in my library? (Yes, ten - I counted.) Ranking will have to wait - maybe forever. I don't have a favorite Così. I grew up thinking that the Schwarzkopf/Böhm recording was the apex, even though I knew that most music lovers preferred Schwarzkopf/Karajan. My first recording was the very heavily cut della Casa/Böhm. Until Sunday, my most recent acquisition was the surprisingly satisfying Fleming/Solti live recording.

What will I listen to next? I think it's time to haul out the 1952 Metropolitan Opera recording, Steber/Stiedry - in English. The translation by Ruth and Thomas P Martin is spry enough to be bearable. The great Richard Tucker sings Ferrando. 

On Cultivation

Shortly after I put down Hermione Lee's Edith Wharton, I came across a something that Fran Lebowitz said about Philip Johnson: "He was very cultivated in a way that probably no American is now." (In the Times.) I realized that I hadn't heard the word "cultivated" in a while, and hadn't thought about what it means, either. And yet how clear it was that I've been cultivating myself since my teens. I was pretty fatuous when I was young, but as I got older and more honest, I pursued only genuine interests. I'm not brilliant  If I were, I wouldn't have to work so hard at learning new things (and remembering old ones!)

Cultivation sounds precious today. It certainly takes a lot of time. I thought I would try to argue the case for cultivation as a pleasure, because that is how I've acquired such cultivation as I've achieved.

On Cultivation.

July 11, 2007



A few months ago, I had an idea. If I were younger, and in possession of a proper basement, I'd have probably made the thing myself, but my DIY days are over. I mentioned my idea to someone who was doing some work here, and he said that he knew a carpenter. We took the relevant measurements and he drew a simple picture, just to be sure that he knew what I wanted. A couple of weeks later, I got a call from the carpenter. Last week, I trekked over to Midtown West and picked it my latest piece of furniture, pictured above.

The idea is to stow the computer keyboard neatly when I want to use the desk in some old-fashioned way that involves perusing large reference volumes or signing checks. As realized in choice Japanese honiki wood, it does exactly what I want it to do and it looks like a shrine.

In the Book Review

There's nothing in this week's Book Review that I want to rush out and buy, but that may be because my standards have gotten defensively high: I've neither the time nor the space for the books that currently await my attention.

Christopher Hitchens appears twice, once as the rather windsocky reviewer of a book about royalty, once as "the fatuous Hitchens," in John Irving's humongo piece about Günter Grass.

For the first time, I note that most of this week's review are not available online, even as "Times Select." What's that about?

A Soldier Once.

July 10, 2007


A message from our law school class secretary urged me to sign up at the alumni website. As a Double Domer, I thought I might as well. But the password requirement was, I thought, kinky. Passwords were to be at least eight characters long, with one number, one upper-case letter, and one lower-case letter. My mind stalled; I couldn't think of anything that I'd be remotely likely to remember. I considered just chucking it.

Although I have a few good friends from law school, I have none whatever from my undergraduate days. There's a brilliant guy at, last time I looked, Catholic University in Washington, with whom I've exchanged a few brief notes over the years - and I do mean "a few." Three or four. I have not been back to Notre Dame since Kathleen and I drove off in 1980. The two of us were sobbing about what we knew was the end of a great circle of friends - you had to be there - and, although we had both given up smoking for some time, we must have gone through six packs of cigarettes on the drive to New York.

I was not a practicing Catholic at any time during my two terms at Notre Dame, and since my time there I've grown to be somewhat anti-Catholic, or anti-Church, so I find the university's self-promotion as a Catholic institution seriously off-putting. And I'm offended, although I don't quite know why, by the alumni website's name, Irish Online.

In case you didn't know it, the Golden Dome atop the university's administration building is a gonflement of the spires that grace the church of Sta Trinità dei Monti in Rome, the church at the top of the Spanish Steps. There is an occult connection, I suspect (the French order of Minims?), between the two buildings. Ironically, the Spanish Steps were paid for by an Eighteenth-Century French ambassador. There's a ha-ha for you.

In Summer

The highlight of our pleasant summer weekend was a brief stroll in Central Park on Saturday evening. There was plenty of light in the sky, but the lamps were lighted. Providing additional illumination, swarms of lightning bugs glistened in the shrubbery, which, for its part, looked extremely kempt. The walks were tidy; the lawns were uninterrruptedly green. There were impressive perennial plantings here and there. We did not penetrate far, but loosely paralleled Fifth Avenue, from 79th Street to 72nd. We were coming from the Metropolitan Museum, where Kathleen caught the Venice and the Islamic World show on the eve of its closing, and where we had another look at the amazing (and amazingly fresh) clothes of Paul Poiret. We were on our way to dinner somewhere. Kathleen thought that there might be something casual at the Kerbs Boathouse, beside Conservatory Water (better known as the Sailboat Pond), but the place was locked up tight. We thought of heading to the other boathouse, on the Lake, where the restaurant is said to be overpriced but the setting unbeatable. It was easier to imagine the pleasures of a table near an open porte-fenêtre at Orsay, on Lexington Avenue at 75th, however, and that is just where we found ourselves a few minutes after leaving the park.

Never has Central Park looked more beautiful to me than it did the other night. Decades of attention from the Central Park Conservancy have refreshed the dreams of Olmstead and Vaux. No longer sullied by neglect and low expectations, the park was all the readier to be burnished by twilight. Close as we were to Fifth Avenue, all we could hear was the song of the birds. If the birds were jays, and not nightingales, we could at least imagine gentler calls.

I ought to spend more time in Central Park. For years, I've confined my limited Parking to Carl Schurz Park, because it's closer to home, and visited largely by the locals. (Don't forget the East River!) But Central Park has become too beautiful to miss.

I found myself wondering why no enterprising painter has taken on Central Park's charm in the way that Harold Altman has made a career in Paris's Parc Monceau.

The weekend had another highlight on Sunday, but that was family.

July 09, 2007

An Old Joke, Surely

Fossil Darling writes,

A thief in Paris planned to steal some paintings from the Louvre. After careful planning, he got past security, stole the paintings and made it safely to his van. However, he was captured only two blocks away when his van ran out of gas.

When asked how he could mastermind such a crime and then make such an obvious error, he replied, "Monsieur, that is the reason I stole the paintings. I had no Monet to buy Degas to make the Van Gogh."

(And you thought I didn't have De Gaulle to send this on to someone else. Well, I figure I have nothing Toulouse.)

Musée d'Orsay sounds more like it, don't you think?

Edward Luce on India

When it comes to books about current affairs, I bore very easily. I'm willing to put in a lot of thought, but I don't want to be raked over padded-out lists of problèmes du jour. Happily, there is no risk of tedium in Edward Luce's In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India. Written by an Oxford-educated reporter at the Financial Time, In Spite of the Gods crackles with wit and understanding. Mr Luce dispenses a boatload of information in a digestible drip, and his chapters are studded with portraits of interesting and notable Indians alike. Perhaps because he's English, Mr Luce writes as though everyone has already had enough of the British Raj, and there is very little about it. For someone my age, who grew up during India's first decade of independence, this account of the ever-more-powerful India makes sense of the great changes that have occurred in India's economic climate since the days of Jawaharlal Nehru.

If I recall correctly, Mr Luce does not once use the term "Subcontinent." I wonder what that's about.

Edward Luce on India.

July 08, 2007


At long last, the New York Times advocates US withdrawal from Iraq. In as orderly a fashion as possible of course, but starting now. "It is time for the United States to leave Iraq, without any more delay than the Pentagon needs to organize an orderly exit."

While Mr. Bush scorns deadlines, he kept promising breakthroughs — after elections, after a constitution, after sending in thousands more troops. But those milestones came and went without any progress toward a stable, democratic Iraq or a path for withdrawal. It is frighteningly clear that Mr. Bush’s plan is to stay the course as long as he is president and dump the mess on his successor. Whatever his cause was, it is lost.

No cheering, please. This editorial is monstrously overdue, following years of journalistic go-along-to-get-along behavior. "A majority of Americans reached these conclusions months ago." This is true. It has not been that long since the majority of Americans gave up on our Iraqi misadventure. But you have to wonder: how capsized does the Poseidon have to be before people stop

July 07, 2007


At the 10 AM showing of Ratatouille at the Orpheum yesterday, there were lots of kids, and they seemed to have a grand time, but I frequently made up a laughing party of one. As someone familiar with French cooking and nearly capable of speaking French myself, I was impressed by the film's gentle and understated Francophilia. As befits an action comedy, Ratatouille is unencumbered by explanatory sermons, but instead of wallowing in cliché it simply presents the French ambiance in an attractive, almost enviable light.

Ratatouille was preceded by a droll Pixar short, Lifted. Call it an amuse-gueule. Oh, and the movie was screened without a hitch for a change.


July 06, 2007


There's an Op-Ed piece in today's Times by a couple of editors at Le Monde, "There's a Word For People Like You." The word, apparently about sixty years old and of Quebecois origin, is "Etats-Unisien," meaning not just américain but someone who comes from the home of the brave.

I first encountered this term a few years ago and fell in love with it. I may be an American, but I am very much not an étatsunisien. Greater New York is about the largest political entity that I'm willing to sign on to.

You have to love the echo of "Tunisian."

Testicular Fortitude

Herewith I tip my hat to Édouard, at Sale Bête, for alerting me to the referenced phrase, which appears at John Rogers's blog, Kung Fu Monkey. Follow the link below to read the entire passage.

Do we on the left have the testicular fortitude to recognize the moment when fruitful stability becomes fatal sclerosis? I ask myself that question every day. So far, dreamlike as it is to say so, we live in fruitful stability. That is not an illusion. But as injustice and irresponsibility mount up, stability petrifies. How do we properly fear the corruption of the Republic when fear itself is so powerfully confusing?

¶ Cole, Powers, and Menand on political irresponsibility and illiteracy, in The New Yorker Review of Books and The New Yorker.

July 05, 2007

Feu d'artifice

Our Fourth of July party is probably a thing of the past, given the much, much better views that we enjoyed from Chelsea last night. The downpour rather miraculously stopped just in time.




The tower at the left is the old Metropolitan Life Insturance building. I believe that it's about to be converted into a condominium. Met Life is now headquartered, of course, at what we still call the Pan Am Building, after Pan American World Airways, a now trenchant symbol of the "American Century."

July 04, 2007

Happy Fourth

As a contribution to the national holiday, I'd like to offer my Fourth of July Game, which you can play only twice - now and next year. But who knows? The game is very simple: make a list of unconstitutional horrors that you are sure lie beyond even the reach of the Bush-Cheney axis of inc"evil"ity. Then sit back and wait to be unpleasantly surprised!

Happy Fourth - if you can swing it.

In the Book Review

There are several really good books covered in this week's Book Review, but the one that I'm sure to get hold of is Min Jin Lee's Free Food For Millionaires, on the strength of Liesl Schillinger's excellent review. If unconstrained by space and time, I'd also read the Politkovskaya diaries, the biography of Condoleezza Rice, and Paul Collier's book about African poverty. Mildred Armstrong Kalish's memoir of growing up on a farm in Iowa looks very good, too, although it also seems strangely out of time. Elizabeth Gilbert's review makes it sound like something published in the Fifties at the latest.

Kalish is wise enough to know that the last link to the past is usually language, and rather than lament what’s been lost, she stays connected to her youthful world by using its gleeful, if outdated, lingo. (Tell me the last time you heard someone exclaim, “Not on your tintype!” or “Gosh all hemlock!”) She admits self-deprecatingly that there were certain expressions she heard spoken so often as a child that she grew up mistakenly thinking they were each a single word: “agoodwoman, hardearnedmoney, agoodhardworker, alittleheathen, adrunkenbum, demonrum and agoodwoolskirt.”

I don't know how much of that sort of thing I could take.

The Home Place.

July 03, 2007


For the first time in years, we won't be hosting a Fourth of July party on our balcony this year. Neither one of us is up to it. I was willing to give it a shot, but Kathleen decided that we'd sit this year out. Or, rather, we'd visit the new apartment of one of our regular guests. He's got a great rooftop view of the fireworks, far better than ours - probably because he lives only a few blocks across town. Then we'll go out.

I went out for lunch yesterday, and quite to my surprise I ran into the parents of one of Kathleen's bridesmaids. They were dressed quite correctly for midtown - I felt like a slob even though I was wearing one of my pricier shirts - but were staying closer to home because, in view of the holiday (they said), their regular midtown restaurants were closed for lunch. Or maybe just closed. They asked after Kathleen, whom they've known since she was in the second grade.

Coming home with the best of intentions, I nevertheless frittered the afternoon away (I had been quite industrious in the morning). I chatted online; I caught up on a number of blogs; and, every five minutes or so, I went to look at the first of the four dining chairs to come back reupholstered. A Mr Solo on 85th Street rebuilt the chair before reupholstering it, so now it's both handsome and sturdy. Kathleen and I had picked out the material at Gracious Home three weeks ago, but having only seen a small swatch we had no idea how the fabric would "make up." It made up very nice, thank you. When Kathleen came home for dinner, she was as pleased as I.

Such household improvements used to delight me as only Christmas does children. Since discovering my calling, I'm rather less feverish about  householding.

July 02, 2007

In the Sandbox

That's where you'll find me this week, in the "sandbox" of the impending Daily Blague. There will be a new URL, a new Web host, and a look and feel that may or may not be different. The platform will be WordPress, not Moveable Type, and comments will , I hope, be less of a pain. The old Daily Blague will stay where it is, as I slowly shift its less ephemeral contents to Portico. (Very slowly.) The old DB taught me a lot. The new TDB will reflect what I've learned. Portico remains, as it was always supposed to be, the heart of the operation.

This calls for business cards. People ask, what do I do. That's what business cards are for - to spare the awkward writing-down of URLs in the middle of cocktails. I'm going to have cards for both sites. The Portico cards will look just like that site's front page, with a multicolored logo over a washed out, somewhat blurred scan of a print that we actually own, Joseph Pennell's Cumberland Gate

As for a Daily Blague card, though, I have no ideas at all. I want it to make people smile. I'm thinking of incorporating the "About me" line under the old photo at the top of the index page: "Who is this joker?" I ask the question often enough in the blog, if not in so many words. But is it a tag I'll be still be happy with when I'm handing out the five-hundredth card?

"Eheu Fugaces" has its charms - its dangerous charms. (Speaking of Latin, don't miss this review of Diabolum Pradae vestibus indui. [Thanks, Édouard.]) Input from the Peanut Gallery would not be unwelcome.


Edith Wharton's Sanctuary was first published in 1903. As a novella, it seems to have been out of print for some time, which is reason to celebrate the Hesperus Press's republication last year. The Hesperus Press is a London imprint that specializes in short books, of which there aren't nearly enough. This edition is easy to carry - it will fit in a capacious pocket - and when it has been read, it all but shouts, "Pass me on!"

Having recently finished Hermione Lee's Edith Wharton, I was mad to read something by Wharton, but I couldn't undertake The Custom of the Country, which is what I'd most like to reread. Sanctuary to the rescue!



July 01, 2007


Not much to report... A quiet Sunday spent reading. Reading the Times. Today's Times. Yesterday's Times. The Times from Friday and Saturday of the first weekend in June. The Saturday Times for the weekend before that. It took a few hours. I also read the Book Review. When I was done with the orgy of journalism, I finished The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet Is Killing Our Culture. Andrew Keen's book is the sort of thing that I usually avoid, but as an Internaut with some pretensions to substance, I thought I'd better have a look.

I'll write more about this book later, but right now I'd like to say a word about the reading experience. On Friday, when I read about half of it, it seemed a prolonged rant with one or two ideas. I was satisfied that I could answer Mr Keen's objections to the Blogosphere, for example. But the second half of the book, which I read this afternoon, while somewhat overwrought, pointed to a lot of Internet issues that really need to be addressed. Such as piracy and illegal online gambling. The Cult of the Amateur is best regarded as an early warning, a canary in the mineshaft, a word to the wise. In order to make a splash, I suppose it has to be a bit overdone.

(I could tell that Mr Keen is British almost without opening the book. I was sure of it long before he revealed his interest in the football team Tottenham Hotspurs.)

Then back to one of the big thick books that have haunted the base of my bedside-books pile, Robin Lane Fox's The Classical World. Remember when I was reading this in April? I've reached the beginning of the sixth and final part of the book, with about a hundred pages to go. This book is full of dash and brio, and not unacquainted with snark. I may have to re-read Marguerite Yourcenar's The Memoirs of Hadrian when I'm through. And watch Gladiator again. Here I'd thought that when Comodus popped up on the arena of the Colosseum, the filmmakers had plunged into anachronism, not to mention lèse majesté. But what do you know? They hadn't. Mr Lane Fox reports a ghastly event in which the Emperor beheaded two ostriches and then brandished the one of the heads alongside his sword - a hint to the Senate, it's suggested. Writing on the transformation of the Repuglic into the Empire that Augustus pulled off, Mr Lane Fox confirms A N Wilson's immortal judgment, that Augustus was the Widmerpool of Ancient Rome.

(Oh, pooh. I just got round to checking prices on the DVD of the British TV adaptation of Powell's magnum opus. It's out of print! "Used and new" copies start at seventy-five pounds! So much for that. I have the tape of a tape of the original VHS. It's sort of watchable.)

Having delighted in Edward Luce's In Spite of the Gods, I want to read Sacred Games, by Vikram Chandra. It's another fat book at the base of a pile.

On Friday, Kathleen brought home a treat. I had to close my eyes &c. A book was placed in my hands - a book with a note. I knew what the note said as soon as I saw the dust jacket. It apologized for having taken so long to get an inscribed copy of Jane Smiley's Ten Days in Hills to Kathleen, who has worked with a woman who turns out to an old pal of novelist's in California. I already have an autographed copy, one that I got when I showed up for a reading in Chelsea. The thing is, I never ask for personal inscriptions. I've been told by people who know that inscribed books are less valuable than autographed ones except in the rare case where the inscribee (that would be me) is more or less as well known as the inscriber. And while I don't collect books with a view to financial gain, I expect that someone down the road will be happier to have a signed book than one that addresses an unknown blogger. However, Jane Smiley is one of the handful of writers whom I revere as people, and "To R J - All the best," with a date about a week later than my (undated) autographed copy, has taken its place on the shelf.

Now all I have to do is get famous.