August 30, 2007

The All of It

Here we are at the end of August. Tomorrow will see the last post at the old Daily Blague ( Happy as I am about the new Daily Blague ( - which is what I hope you're reading - I'm stung by the old leaving-school nostalgia. It is painful to outgrow things.

For my penultimate pointer, I've chosen a book that I read because I met the author herself, in the ophthalmologist's waiting room. She was a handsome matron in tweeds who asked me if I knew what the music playing on the radio was. (They play WQXR at Dr Odell's.) I did: it was Telemann's delightful concerto for three oboes and three violins. We fell into a conversation of sorts, with her doing most of the talking. I don't know how I captured the name of her book, because the doctor's office knew her under her married name, but after my exam I walked round the corner to Lenox Hill books, which was still going, and found a copy of The All of It. The clerk told me that it is a "favorite in the neighborhood" - the neighborhood being 10021, the city's ritziest ZIP code. (It's still going, too, but in much reduced form.)

The All of It.

August 28, 2007

Indian Melon Salad

Tonight or tomorrow night, I'll be roasting a chicken. Kathleen and I will eat the legs and the wings at dinner. The breast will be stored for a few more days, to make Indian Melon Salad. I got the recipe from a lovely Irishwoman living in Chicago, and it has always represented for me a peculiarly Midwestern ingenuity: taking ordinary ingredients, adding a few unusual ones, and producing something that's both comfortable and sophisticated. The earthiness of the dressed chicken contrasts delightfully with the crisp celery and water chestnuts and with the sweet fruit (the grapes pack their own crunchy punch). The one thing I don't understand is why Kathleen invariably insists that "this time," I've done something different that had made the salad even better.

Kathleen Brady's Indian Melon Salad.

August 24, 2007

Strong Motion

The Corrections catapaulted writer Jonathan Franzen to the top of the tree, where, in the manner of literary greats, he will remain until he dies, no matter what he does or does not go on to write between now and then. He is not famous enough for me, though. He's not yet famous enough to have attracted a massive reading of his second novel, Strong Motion (1992). I've read it twice, and look forward to reading it again. It's well-matched but mismatched lover, Renée and Louis, tap into a nasty environmental hazard that gives the novel the coloration of a thriller, even though they're much too hip and well-developed (as characters) to be at home in a page-turner. Even that dissociation strengthens the book.

Strong Motion.

August 23, 2007

Business and Sports: Competition Misunderstood

One of the oldest pages at Portico is this one, about the strange folly of talking about business as though it had something in common with sports. Would that they did! - as I'm sure businessmen would think, if they thought. In fact, the comparison between business and sports, the overlay of sports metaphors on business situations, is specious, a real case of "whited sepulchre."

What do you think?

Business and Sports.

August 20, 2007

The Palm Beach Story


What's your favorite comedy? What a question! The Palm Beach Story, though, stands firmly within the clutch of ten or so films that answer that question at any given time. Preston Sturges does things that nobody else ever thought of trying. Surely there has never been anything as grossly transgressive as the behavior of the Ale & Quail Club members in their bar car. And the way Geraldine keeps stepping on Hackensacker's spectacles! Lots of "ouch" factor there. Just the same, there has never been a more seductive surrender scene than the one that Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrae deliver at the end.

Our favorite line:

"Don't you think garnets are a little lifeless?"

Our second favorite line:

"You're thinking of an adventurer, dear. An adventuress never goes on anything under three hundred feet - with a crew of eighty." 

The Palm Beach Story.

Up in the Air

Of the three novels by Walter Kirn that I've read, Up in the Air is the most unsettling. A contained but quietly cocky consultant flies from one Western town to another on a mission that is not entirely clear even to him. But the plot is a McGuffin. Up in the Air is a meditation on the depersonalization of the American atmosphere wherever corporations control the climate.

Up in the Air.

August 15, 2007


There is reason to believe that my page on Bermuda, written several years ago, is dated in at least one respect: the major Front Street shops, one hears, have closed. Bermudians have made a very hard decision, to restrict the incursion of cruise ships, and they have also rejected gambling. Tastes in travel have certainly changed; rest and relaxation no longer seems to be an important vacation objective. Bermuda will have visitors as long as it manages to stay above sea-level, but its principal industry is not tourism but reinsurance. I love the place, even now that I understand what a fantasy-land it is.

Yorkville High Street>Travels>Bermuda.

August 14, 2007

Based on a Totally True Story

It feels like a thousand years since I've been to the theatre. Last August, Kathleen and I went to the theatre every Friday night, and what fun we had! We meant to do the same this year, but circumstances have worked against it. There's only one play on Broadway that I'm keen to see, Old Acquaintance. A production of Pygmalion, with Clare Danes and the amazing Jefferson Mays is coming up - must order tickets.

Based on a Totally True Story is a bittersweet comedy about Hollywood's ability to rip off the heads of creative people and then to sew them on backwards. It made a permanent Kristine Nielsen fan out of me. 

Audience>MTC Diary>Based on a Totally True Story.

August 13, 2007


Here's a short page about a thriller that was subsequently turned into a film starring Daniel Craig. You'll also have a look at what Portico looked like a few years ago, before the blogging. I see from my database that I have given the book away. I suspect that one of these days I'll buy it in paper and read it again. What, exactly, is the pleasure that books like Archangel provide? Could it have something to do with all the hard work - the tedious preparation - that their unconsciously glamorous heroes put in, alongside the derring-do? Come to think of it, I haven't yet read the copy of The Day of the Jackal that I picked up a while back, to take the place of the lost review copy that I got at the radio station.

¶Reading Matter>Books on the Side> Archangel.

August 12, 2007

Baked Alaaska

Catching up with several days' worth of Timeses, I only just read the news about critic James Wood's move to The New Yorker. Hooray! I've missed him, having given up The New Republic because of its bellicose stance on the Iraqi misadventure. But Motoko Rich's little piece in the Times is priceless, because of a wonderfully self-regarding quote from literary lion Leon Wieseltier.

Leon Wieseltier, literary editor at The New Republic, said, “The New Republic plays many significant roles in American culture, and one of them is to find and to develop writers with whom The New Yorker can eventually staff itself.”

Jean Ruaud mentions the local station de vélib in his latest entry. I didn't really know what he talking about, but of course it's the new free bicycle service that Paris mayor Bernard Delanoë inaugurated last month. I found these snaps at Flickr.

Now, what can I point you to today? The calendar calls for something culinary. What looks good? Ah - yummy. But can there be a dish more out of favor than this:

Culinarion>Eggs>Baked Alaska?

August 02, 2007

Business & Sports

Here's a page from the very beginning - l'an deux mille. Inspired by a Malcolm Gladwell review in The New York Review of Books, I argue that business, which actually resembles warfare, has nothing to learn from sports or athletics, which take the "war" out of warfare. Even I had to struggle to follow the discussion, but in every particular I managed to do so. Although the writing is suitably crisp, the thinking can be very dense, and, frankly, I was impressed by the amount of thought that the writer had put into these issues. I couldn't have written it.

Except I did.

Big Ideas>Civil Pleasures>Business & Sports: Character & Motivation.

August 01, 2007


Following a custom inaugurated last year, I'm pointing visitors to older pages at Portico this month. In theory, this is a way of taking the month off. In practice, I don't get the month off at all. I still write the Book Review review, I still go to the movies. But there won't be any new book coverage, nor any Friday Fronts.

I'm going to start off with a page that went up in 2006, but it's a collation of the blog entries that I posted in January 2005, when the Daily Blague was in its third month. In essence, then, I'm cannibalizing old blog entries! But every time I read "A Week in Istanbul," I feel as though I'm walking down Istiklal Street on a red carpet that's being rolled out just for me. Past the "Luvr" apartment house and the "Markiz" pastry shop. Not to mention Robinson Crusoe Books.

¶ Yorkville High Street>Travels>A Week in Istanbul.

August 31, 2006


The month of August, which was so productive in ways that I wasn't anticipating, and so unproductive in the ones that I was, comes to an end with a picture of me. I'm standing on Horseshoe Beach in Bermuda, five or six years ago. I still have the hat, and I wore the shirt the other day (it's time to put away the Madras - wouldn't want to run into Serial Mom). As for the smile, it's clear that I'm not upset about a refrigerator in the foyer.

Yorkville High Street>Portrait de l'auteur sur la plage

Vivement la rentrée!

August 30, 2006

Child of My Heart

Two days to go, and then it's back to original-entry blogging. I hope that you've enjoyed spending time at Portico, and that the layout of the site is more familiar. This blog is transient (not its comments, though), but Portico is permanent. Perhaps it would better to say that it's a permanent upgrade. Or so I like to think.

Showcased today is Alice McDermott's Child of My Heart one of the loveliest novels that I've ever read, a delicate but never cloying exploration of the liminal consciousness of a beautiful teenager whose childhood is about to end. There is sadness in the novel's East Hampton sunshine, but it is still radiant sunshine, too beautiful, too evocative of summer's freedom to be at all unpleasant.

Reading Matter>Books on the Side>Child of My Heart


August 29, 2006

Star Wars

Good grief! Our refrigerator died in the night. We awoke to a groaning motor and a thawed freezer. It appears that my much-postponed icebox cleanup has been taken care of! The official repair people told me that they can't come until next week, prompting me to ask if I now live in a third-world country.

Something even more depressing: Ronald Reagan. Not so much Ronald Reagan himself - a charming opportunist with no particular agenda beyond preferring owners to workers - as the fact that a majority of Americans thought that he ought to be their country's president. This is still the most stupefying thing that has happened to me in my lifetime. His victory was the moment in which I asked myself, "But where can I go to, to be free? Where's my new world?"

The mirror that Ronald Reagan's election holds up to the nation that chose him, of all people, to lead it discloses a terrible disgrace.

Big Ideas>Books>Reagan in Space

The disadvantages of being a one-man band don't need to be spelled out. I can simply offer the following extract, which I have removed from today's page without even trying to fix it.

Reagan's actual cabinet and staff acted its part as well,  that would ordain seemed to believe that authority was not vested in himself. But to his aides he was the President, scrupulously respecting him as the leader of the free world.

"Would ordain seemed to believe" is the most appalling pile-up of verbs that I've ever let stand (I hope).

August 28, 2006

Unfaithfully Yours

It's incredibly conceited of me to say so, but rereading today's page made me laugh out loud. I don't know that it will tickle the funnybone of anyone who hasn't seen Rex Harrison in Unfaithfully Yours, but I hope that it will persuade a few film buffs to see the film if they haven't, and to watch it again if they have.

Audience>Home Theatre>Unfaithfully Yours

I saw Rex Harrison twice onstage. The first time, he was still playing Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, a part that I've always felt that his performance in Unfaithfully Yours gave him a lock on. The second time was in 1985, in a Broadway revival of Frederick Lonsdale's 1923 comedy, Aren't We All? I don't remember anything about the play, except that nobody said "Tennis, anyone?", but the cast was glittering, with Claudette Colbert, Lynn Redgrave, and Jeremy Brett. It was pointed out that Claudette Colbert, who lived to be ninety-two, had launched her career by the time the play was introduced! And I have never seen a better demonstration of "The show must go on." Jeremy Brett's wife, the Mystery series producer Joan Wilson, had died the night before, or the night before that.

August 27, 2006

A World of Menus and Recipes

What sounds more old-fashioned than "aspic"? I'll bet that lots of people have never tasted one. But I assure you that there is nothing more refreshing than the julienned beet aspic toward which this entry is pointed. Like all cold dishes, it's made well in advance, so that preparation of the dish is completely uncoupled from the inevitable fuss of entertaining.

We have a good friend who won't eat beets. To her, they taste like dirt. I was astounded when I heard this, but over time I've come to see what she means - and I also see why certain remote and disadvantaged people eat dirt. (Or so they say.) Beets are undeniably earthy. But what this means is not that they taste vague and indistinct, but rather sharp and even a bit metallic. That's what makes them so refreshing. Like lemons, they announce themselves with vigor and a total lack of ambiguity.

Culinarion>Savories>A World of Menus and Recipes

¶ Last night, to get to Lincoln Center, I boarded a crosstown bus that, when I walked out of the building, was standing in front of our driveway, waiting for the light to change. Walking vigorously, I caught up with it on the other side of Second Avenue - sometimes it's a blessing that buses take forever to board. I don't know when the girl in the green top got on the bus, but she got off just ahead of me at Broadway.

She wasn't a girl really. In her mid-thirties. An independent person, I should say, if only because she was out by herself on a Saturday night. Neither tall nor short, large nor small, plain nor beautiful, she was just a girl in a bright green top, a grey skirt, and - I think - deep red pumps. I took in this information when I followed her out of the 66th Street station. So, we're both going to Mostly Mozart, I thought. Not that I saw her go into Avery Fisher Hall. I was too busy promenading the Josie Robertson Plaza - isn't that what it's improbably called? - making phone calls. It was, after all, only 7:30. I forgot all about the girl in the green top.

Until she was the first person in the seats behind the Mostly Mozart Orchestra to stand up and applaud when the performance of the Jupiter Symphony was over. When two Manhattanites who know each other run into each other, they're quick to say that New York is a small town. This was different: this was something that proved how very much New York is not a small town. This was holding on, for more than two seconds, to one of the hundreds - sometimes thousands - of total strangers that one encounters in the course of doing almost anything exterior in Manhattan.

August 26, 2006


Well, I still haven't been to Italy, haven't seen any of Palladio's villas. Nor have I written to Witold Rybczynsk, probably because I never quite finished his book about Palladio. It has been a while, indeed, since I've picked up The Four Books on Architecture, although it's very handily situated in our living room. Indeed, re-reading this page, I felt the anxiety that I've been suffering for weeks focus into a stab of pain. The month hasn't gone at all as planned. Never have I been more "social," and in few months have I ever been to so many plays and concerts. Long lunches, lengthy rambles and evenings out have left me feeling rather dissipated, and more than a little dizzy. I have christened this strange mood "Hellomoto," after the antic ringtone of that name that comes with my Razr phone. Perhaps an hour or two with Palladio would act, as I wrote, as a "tonic" to "restore jaded senses."

But of course I can't, not right now. I'm determined to finish another task. See the following entry, above.

Audience>Beaux Arts>Palladio

August 25, 2006

John Lanchester's Proverbs

A few years ago (all right, six), British novelist John Lanchester came out with a book called Mr Phillips. Long before I'd reached the halfway point of this story about a man who has lost his job but can't 'fess up to his wife, I noticed that the title character was chock-full of aphorisms that, alas, had hardly been of any use to him. It' still an interesting collection, these insights of a failure. And how cheeky of me to substitute this list for a decent review!

Reading Matter>Extras>Mr Phillips's Home Truths.


August 24, 2006


In October 2001, I thought about "9/11" as a date in history books of the future, as a mark on a timeline. As we approach the fifth anniversary of the catastrophe, the date itself is as weighty and imposing as the towers that fell. It is still much too soon to assess its significance, but I think that we note a certain change in how we live. "9/11" blasted a hole in the bubble that Americans like to pull over themselves, blocking out consciousness of the rest of the world except - and this only for a minority - as a tourist destination. I am sure that most of my countrymen would like very much to seal themselves up again, only now they know that it's impossible.

For most of the people who have come to this country, the United States was not only a land of opportunity but an escape from conditions of greater or lesser oppression. Along with the other Western democracies, the United States has (until recently) inspired the growth of democracy everywhere. We need to stop looking at the rest of the world as the place from which our ancestors escaped.



August 23, 2006

Ça ne change pas


Here's another helping of old prose. Perhaps it's a sign of mental inertia, but what I wrote in January 2003 about the American response to 9/11 still seems to hold very well. While it's true that more Americans are against our Iraqi misadventure than ever, I don't think that much ground has been gained in the understanding of foreign mindsets. Like the Italians, we appear to believe that the full measure of what's "foreign" can be found within the various regions of our own country, and that anything more foreign than a Yankee to a Texan is somehow no longer quite terrestrial.

Rereading my comments on an essay by Joan Didion, I'm reminded how quickly death makes one remote: John Gregory Dunne was still alive then - he had almost a year left to live. Surely my piece must be more than three and a half years old!

Big Ideas>

¶ I had something of a quiet big day today, never you mind why. But I did have an unusual stroll, from a financial printer near Grand Central to Lincoln Center. The Pulitzer Fountain at Grand Army Plaza, above, was just a bit past the half-way mark. That's Bergdorf Goodman beyond the trees. 

August 22, 2006

Yorkville High Street

Today, I point you to some of the very oldest writing at Portico - it seems to date all the way back to 1999! It's a collection of three pieces. The first is about the unusual street on which I live - a subject that I'll be revisiting in a year or so when two new buildings continue the transformation of the neighborhood, from a German enclave to a destination shopping street. The second piece is about James de la Vega, an artist from Spanish Harlem who has been gracing the city's sidewalks with gracefully irreverent chalk drawings for years. It was written upon just having seen Mr de la Vega at work right outside my building. The third piece, I think, needs to be opened up and expanded; it's about what Howard Dietz, in the lyrics for the song "Paree," called "New York with its rush-rush-rush."

When these pieces were written, I had absolutely no idea of what I was doing on the Internet. Blogging was not even on my radar.

Yorkville High Street>Travels>Yorkville High Street

¶ In yesterday's Times, Terence J Daly, a "retired military intelligence officer and counterinsurgency specialist who served in Vietnam as a province-level adviser," expresses an idea that I've been chewing on for a while. If I've kept it to myself, it's because I haven't a shred of military experience. But it has come to seem to me that conventional armies are not the way to fight the war on terror. The Iraqi "insurgency" is not an army at all, but rather an uprising that rends the civil fabric. Military force, which is equally heedless of civil fabric, cannot possibly undertake its repair. Mr Daly is right, I believe, to propose a police model for our activities in Iraq. Mr Daly concludes,

Forcing the round peg of our military, which has no equal in speed, firepower, maneuver and shock action, into the square hole of international law enforcement and population control isn’t working. We need a peacekeeping force to complement our war-fighters, and we need to start building it now.

Step One would be the massive deployment of Arabic-speaking American agents. Now, I don't think it's very likely, either. Not in this misadventure; not with this Commander-in-Chief (who seems almost as innocent of military experience as I am). But next time. There's certain to be a next time.

August 21, 2006

Ruth Draper

Ruth Draper. I shall probably always point to this page in August; over the years, Draper's monologues have taken on the weight of Hamlet's. They're "so full of quotations!", to quote Mrs Clancy in The Italian Lesson (she's speaking of Dante, beyond the first terzet of whose "Divine!" Comedy she seems fated never to get. And if "Oh, waiter, would you kindly add to that order three chocolate eclairs" no longer puts me in danger of crise cardiaque, I remember my first response to that line as if it were a page of my medical history. (The request is made by Mrs Grimmer, in Doctors and Diets.) It's easy to take Ruth Draper's monologues as early American camp, and perhaps they are. But they're something else, something that has nothing to do with camp. They're mature American satires. Ruth Draper may have been the first intelligent person to focus on American silliness.

(What did Edith Wharton make of her? Did they ever connect?)

Gay fans kept Ruth Draper alive from the time that she died, shortly after recording a bunch of her routines at Yale in the mid-Fifties, until fairly recently, when, like so many gay crazes, she was de-cryogenized and released into the general culture, to quietly mounting acclaim. Any real fan ought to try to obtain her correspondence. It is very Yankee and sound. When her lover, an Americo-Itlalian poet almost half her age, crashed into the Mediterranean in a plane that he was flying in order to distribute anti-Fascist leaflets, she was broken-hearted but determined to carry on. The three years that they had together remained her golden age. It is immensely touching to read the letters in which she talks about it - which she does not do, you may be sure, at length. She may have been a comedienne, and a rich one, too (she earned a fortune), but her heart beat not too differently from Pagliaccio's.

"So often that's how trouble starts." Just say that to Kathleen, and her eyes will glisten at you as she decides on the right smile. And the right riposte.

Audience>This & That>Ruth Draper



August 20, 2006


This page is rather grandly entitled "The Novels of Ian McEwan," but only one of this great writer's novels is discussed, and that his most recent, Saturday. Even worse, the "discussion" turns out to be an assortment of "random notes." I have tidied up a few blots and, in two instances, altered the wording. But I've let the pretension of comprehensiveness stand. Aside from a collection of  stories, I've read all of Mr McEwan's work, and I have dreams of rereading it and adding more pages to Portico. These dreams seem, I must say, incredibly fantastical these days, as I struggle to tread new books. That's right - tread books. Treading water is hard enough to keep up for a long time; treading new books is the Stairmaster of the mind: very wearing. Will I ever re-read anything? (NB: the Never Let Me Go re-reading is on hold at the moment, while new participants get their copies, making the project a reading/re-reading.)

Reading Matter>Reading Matter>Ian McEwan


August 19, 2006



Every time I bake a soufflé, I wonder if this will be the first - the first to fail, that is. But I seem to have had an excellent instructor in Julia Child. When I went back to Mastering the Art of French Cooking to improve my technique, I discovered that there was nothing to improve: I had simply made a habit of following the rules laid down therein. As long as you're careful about separating the egg yolks and whites, and don't run a conga line through your kitchen (and don't open the oven door to check on the dish!), everything will be fine.

The monster above was made when our friend Jim brought over a bushel of fantastic, exotic mushrooms from his brother's farm in Ohio. A little over three years ago.



August 18, 2006


David Auburn's Proof is one of the strongest plays that the American theatre has produced in the past twenty-five years. It has proved to be an engaging drama with a wide popularity. Although its protagonist, Catherine, is a mathematician, and much of the drama concerns a proof that may or may not have been worked out by her mathematician father, the play's appeal lies in a gifted person's struggle to be taken seriously. Neither the graduate student who may or may not want to steal the proof in question nor her bland and conventional sister seem capable of regarding Catherine as anything but a wreck. Which is of course what Catherine looks like. What she has to teach them is that their attitude toward her is what's keeping her down.

Although Gwyneth Paltrow is surprisingly good in John Madden's film adaptation, and Jennifer Jason Leigh was super, too, in the role on Broadway, Catherine will always be Mary-Louise Parker to me. Ms Parker fully projected the drift, something between distraction and disorientation, of someone attending to far more important matters of the mind. She also demonstrated the natural scariness of a pretty woman who doesn't "take care of herself" - who doesn't seem to care about appearances at all.

The text of the play is available from Faber and Faber, and it makes a very good read.

Audience>MTC Diary>Proof


August 17, 2006


The maddening thing about The Age of Conversation is that I've learned that there's a better book on the same subject, by a man whose name begins with the letter A. It is an Italian name, not French. This is maddening because, on the basis of what I've read as references to it, I have to read the other book before I can trumpet any of the insights that Benedetta Craveri's The Age of Conversation inspired.

I was talking with a well-brought-up friend this evening, about Martin Scorsese's adaptation of The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton's third-most-famous novel. We agreed that he had completely missed - I feel that I must invoke the stronger French verb, rater - the lifestyle of the American upper crust.  Most people don't understand society, small s or capital - they just take it for granted. But "society" doesn't just happen. Agendas are involved, and some of them are more successful than others. And society's rules are never as silly as they seem to be. How nice it would be if they were! But they're not.

There are two crazy-different things about Western civilization. One, our music is only rarely in unison, instead of always. Which is a clue about the second thing. Second, our women are often complete citizens in their own right. It still hasn't finished even here, that drive for feminine equality. But it is no more advanced anywhere else - the paradox of the United States and the skeleton key to its grotesque conservative twitching.

Dates>History Books>The Origins of Conversation


August 16, 2006

A Modest Proposal

Now that I take another look at this bright idea of mine - taking everything not strictly academic about public education and combining it with parks and recreation - wouldn't open a crack for federalizing superior academic programs.

What would happen if prestigious colleges and universities began preferring the pupils of federally chartered teachers?

Big Ideas>Parks and Recreation>Parks and Recreation>Parks and Recreation (and schools)

¶ When I was a college student, the most affordable recording of The Marriage of Figaro that I came across was an East German production (with lots of West German talent) sung in German: Die Hochzeit des Figaro. Otmar Suitner conducted the Dresden Staatskapelle, with Walter Berry in the title role, Hermann Prey as the Count, Hilde Gueden as the Countess, Anneliese Rothenberger as Susanna, and Edith Mathis as Cherubino. I never thought that I'd see the recording on CD, but there it was the other day when I was checking out Ms Rothenberger's listings. This is a first-quality recording, and I strongly recommend acquiring it. I myself am back in heaven.

August 15, 2006


When I accompanied Kathleen to an ETF conference in Amsterdam in 2002, I experienced a profound surprise. At the age of fifty-four, I discovered what it is like to be at home.

I knew, of course, what it is like not to be at home. Oh, that - very well. First, the half-timbered fakery of the Holy Square Mile, and then, Houston. I know what it's like to feel like an alien. Even in Manhattan, I'm a renter, not an owner.

I thought that feeling like an alien was simply my lot in life - until Amsterdam. In Amsterdam, I was taken by almost everybody to be a local. I had to excuse myself a hundred times and explain that, no, I was not a Nederlander but a New Yorker. It wasn't so much that I loved Amsterdam (although I did!) as that Amsterdam seemed to be loving me.

If only I could transform Kathleen into an international lawyer, I'd move to Amsterdam in a heartbeat. 

Yorkville High Street>Travels>A Week in Amsterdam


August 14, 2006

The Solid Gold Cadillac

In a few weeks, I'll be writing about a book that talks of "the corporatocracy" in a manner so chilling that one doubts that one ought to be seen with it in public, lest "the jackals" pounce. It is very easy to see large corporations as agents of evil. In fact, however, as the movie under discussion makes clear, the corporation is simply a device capable of conferring inordinate power on incompetent people. As I read about the born John Bulls who converted to Islam and plotted to blow up planes with bombs assembled in flight, I ask myself if the "war" is simply a struggle between global corporatism and its discontents, taking Islam as a stooge. We could certainly use a Judy Holliday now.

Audience>Home Theatre>The Solid Gold Cadillac


August 13, 2006

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

There was life before Dave Eggers? No! A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was a great big American mess of a story, written and read in simpler times. Although bristling with all the latest attitudes, it was as straightforwardly pious as The Pilgrim's Progress.

Six years have passed since the book came out. Christopher Eggers, the treasure whom the narrator guards with his life, must be approaching the end of his high school career, if he's not already in college. But he will always be eight years old in literature. His brother's impassioned guardianship has pinned him like a captured butterfly.

I didn't know how good things were. We none of us did.

Reading Matter>Books on the Side>A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.


August 12, 2006

Beef Stroganoff

Fall is approaching, and I plan to celebrate it with Beef Stroganoff - the real thing. Thin slices of tenderloin are pan-roasted in a hot skillet and then bathed with sautéed onions in a velouté that has been amplified with mustard and sour cream. This dish is garnished with a mound of shoestring potatoes. It's immensely satisfying, partly because it fills the house with "serious cooking!" smells that I recall from childhood.

As usual, I begin by saying "there's nothing to it" and then proceed to rely on expensive appliances. (Given today's excesses, they're not that expensive.) You can always have the butcher slice the meet, and nobody really needs a deep-fat fryer (except anyone stuck with an unventilated kitchen - that would be me).

More than half of the email that I get from far-flung readers is written in response to a Culinarion page. Considering the plethora of culinary sites out there, I'm a bit non-plussed. I took the branch down for a while, some time ago, thinking that it had nothing to do with the rest of Portico. But of course it belongs, because if I'm not reading or writing, going to concerts or museums, or paying attention to New York City, then I'm in the kitchen!

Culinarion>Savories>Beef Stroganoff


August 11, 2006

Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom

"Because it has always been like that." I've no better explanation for why sharing the page is something that only happens to light reading - or to books that I didn't much care for - while practically the only way for a play to get its own page is to be a production of  the Manhattan Theatre Club. If Portico is a work in progress, then some parts have progressed far beyond others.

Sheer perversity inspired me to pick the least-known play on the page to feature today. Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom is a sweet play that was given a good Off-Off-Broadway production a few years ago. It was produced with fewer resources than an affluent surburban high school could command, but the production was nonetheless entirely professional. At no time was the audience asked to make allowances for limitations. Such limitations as there were were both material and immaterial.

Audience>Here & There>Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom

I'm looking foward to seeing The Drowsy Chaperone tonight. We saw Sarah Jones's fantastic Bridge & Tunnel just in time, two weeks ago, and we've got The History Boys next week. Plus a trio of Mostly Mozart dates. So much for a dead August!

August 10, 2006

Concocting Feudalism

Among the books that I really have to read again is Susan Reynolds's Fiefs and Vassals (Oxford, 1994). Professor Reynolds deals with received wisdom and armchair conclusions as if she were a rigorous dominatrix, but what makes this book exciting is its approach to the conclusion that there never was, at any time between Rome and the Renaissance, a truly "feudal" moment. Far from an understanding of human relations rising autochthonously from Northern European society in the ferment of the Dark Ages, Professor Reynolds's feudalism is one quarter nostalgia and three quarters charters drawn up by sophisticated lawyers. The ceremonials of knighthood were no doubt very engaging to the parties involved, but the real world worked much like ours - with written deeds. The big difference was the creative leeway that medieval attorneys had with the facts.

Americans are said to be a dynamic people, and I'm sure that we are. Our problem is that we regard the past as a sort of still life of "this is how things have always been." Things have never always been. The pace of change in the early eleventh century was undoubtedly slower than it is now, but the people who were alive and walking around in those days (and drawing up charters) may be forgiven for not thinking of themselves as rooted vegetation. In 1037, Europeans were beginning to believe that the marauding attacks that had plagued it for centuries were a thing of the past. Indeed, the century would end with Europeans doing the marauding, in the Crusades.

Meanwhile, the merest glance at medieval arrangements obliges any thinking American to wonder at how quickly our bicentennial-plus country has achieved the institutional sclerosis that it took Europe centuries to generate before the modern nation state (in Europe) cleared things up. With our states, our counties and our school boards all in jurisdictional conflict, we have grown a machine that can't work - and this certainly suits the conservative temper of the moment. But it can't go on indefinitely, and I hope that some young Americans are thinking about how we're ever going to get out of our medieval mess.




August 09, 2006

The Metaphysical Club

Were I to write about Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club today, I suspect that it would be at somewhat greater length than that of this page of five paragraphs from 2001. I'd launched Portico at the beginning of 2000, but I still had no very clear idea of what I was doing. The Metaphysical Club is a weighty (albeit lucid) tome that explores the most upholstered period in American thought; I think that I might say that American thinkers had no very clear idea of what they were doing - at least as writers.

Big Ideas>Books>The Metaphysical Club

Times columnist Clyde Haberman wrote yesterday about reverberations both caused and likely to be caused by Oliver Stone's World Trade Center, a film that opens tomorrow. Noting that "the business of who gets to turn a dollar, and by what method, can be tricky," Mr Haberman wonders,

Would former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani be earning his many millions and contemplating a presidential race were it not for 9/11? Would his onetime sidekick, Bernard B. Kerik, be in demand as a security expert? Would George E. Pataki, who to our knowledge has never been referred to as “America’s Governor,” be seriously entertaining White House dreams?

Even more ouch-making:

What if a future filmmaker wishes to explore aspects of 9/11 that are not soul-stirring? What if some people trapped inside the twin towers are portrayed as far-from-noble figures? Or if a movie dwells on the catastrophic failure of communications between the Police and Fire Departments that occurred on Mr. Giuliani’s watch, a breakdown that was perhaps responsible for hundreds of needless deaths?

Ah, the higher opportunism meets political correctness. For Times Select subscribers, here's "On Movies About 9/11 No Offense."

August 08, 2006

Rue Bonaparte

Sadly, I have no immediate plans to visit Paris, but when I do go next time, I'm going to walk up and down Rue Bonaparte just to have a look at Diane Johnson's house, which, as I recall, is Nº 8. Ms Johnson qua novelist has an assured and knowing voice, but in this book about her neighborhood, she sounds much more like the Californian expat that she is, knowledgeable enough to know how much she doesn't know.

I wish that Ms Johnson would write an update of Edith Wharton's French Ways and their Meaning. I even wrote to her to make the suggestion. If and when I get an answer, I'll let you know.

Yorkville High Street>Curriculum Vitae>Diane Johnson's Neighborhood


August 07, 2006

Nurse Betty

Is there a happier ending than this film's? I don't think so.

Audience>Home Theatre>Nurse Betty

August 06, 2006

"On Writing"

Whenever I actually stop to read this page, which has headed the Reading Matter branch ever since it was set up, I think how little has been written about writing, probably because it's not terribly attractive, but partly, too, because while writers are likely enough to catalogue the distractions that tempt them away from their work, they don't give much thought to what they must look like when they're at it.

I thought about exactly this only because, when I remembered my youthful image of the writer at work, it made me laugh.

Reading Matter>On Writing


August 05, 2006


Here is one of the most popular pages at Portico. It is my old roommate's recipe for - death by marsh gas? Despite the Homeric drift in contemporary male recreational cuisine - can grillside slaughter be far ahead? - laziness is still a staple in everyman's larder. My friend insists that there is nothing more reassuring on a lonely winter night than this explosion of fats and farts, but I haven't been lonely enough to give it a try.



August 04, 2006

Music Guides - Feh!

More scolding, and once again in connection with getting rid of books. Reference guides, however, aren't be judged as literature; they're either useful or they're not. The two books that I got rid of (once I'd had my sport) weren't even interesting.

Nothing is more difficult than writing about sense impressions. Words are absolutely powerless to convey such impressions themselves; all we can hope for is a web of connections stout enough to let a ghost of the writer's experience cross the abyss between any two minds. Music presents special problems, because it has a fully-developed theoretical language that can be clipped back and simplified for general consumption. The problem, of course, is that this conveys little to nothing about the experience of music. It is formal, and sometimes analytical, but not informative. To read that "Mozart's consummate use of string tone is unparalleled" is really to waste one's time. I can imagine writing sentences that might include "consummate use of string tone" and "unparalleled," but I hope I'd say more about that string tone. What does it sound like?

In any case, before I got rid of two classical music guidebooks, I did a bit of venting.

Music>Extras>Guides to Music


August 03, 2006

Not So Ancient History

Today's page shows me at play in the fields of history, holding two books of medieval history up to each other. Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror and Peter Spufford's Power and Profit: The Merchant in Medieval Europe couldn't me more different (although both are great). Tuchman's book is all about how remote and unusual French aristocrats of the fourteenth century were. Mr Spufford's study of the mercantile mindset in the same period shows that businessmen of the same period were the real road warriors.

Dates>History Books>Getting Business Going

¶ I thought it would take longer, but turning the mess in the "Lobby" page at Portico into a simple site map took only an hour or so to do.

¶ Here's something amusing to listen to. Someone took a "helpful" message from a pastor's answering machine and remixed it, bringing out all of the lubriciousness latent in the caller's complaint.

August 02, 2006

In the Book Review

In which we have a look at this week's New York Times Book Review, even though we're on vacation.

We interrupt our vacation (ha!*) to bring you an express review of the Book Review. One or two sentences have been chosen from each review, not because it will give an idea of what the book's about but rather because it betrays the quality of the review. Will Blythe's review of Talk Talk, for example, is every bit as windy and pointless as is my extract. ("Longstanding virtuosities"? - chalk on a blackboard!) Caryn James was probably not the right choice for Grief. And surely Neil Genzlinger could have foreseen that Execution is, as he says, to be read in random swoops, not all at once, as he apparently read it.

On the whole, this week's reviews were diligent and sensible. There's nothing sensationally egregious to laugh at/rail against.


The Keep, by Jennifer Egan. "The opening of her new novel, The Keep, lays out a whole Escherian architecture, replete with metafictional trapdoors, pitfalls, infinitely receding reflections and trompe l'oeil effects, but what's more immediately striking about this book is its unusually vivid and convincing realism. Egan sustains an awareness that the text is being manipulated by its author, while at the same time delivering character and story with perfect and passionate conviction." - Madison Smartt Bell.

The Ruins, by Scott Smith. "The Ruins is superior horror literature, but it does not entirely overcome the pile-driving limitations of the genre; it might have been more effective as a short story." - Gary Kamiya.

Continue reading "In the Book Review" »

Hollywood Under the Hood

Let's go to Hollywood - and see just how very unglamorous it can be! Connie Bruck's When Hollywood Had a King: The Reign of Lew Wasserman, Who Leveraged Talent into Power and Influence (Random House, 2003) gave its readers an education in the nuts and bolts of the world's most collaborative art form, but it seemed morally unconscious, as if the wonder of the movies could excuse some very bad behavior. I appear to have relished giving Ms Bruck a scolding. Now that I review book reviews, I'm not sure that I wouldn't write something different today. But I no longer own the book, and it's convenient, at least, for me to be able to see why.

Big Ideas>Books>Lew Wasserman's Hollywood

¶ Be sure not to miss Nicholas Lemann's report on blogging and journalism, "The Amateur Hour," in the current New Yorker. Bloggers who feel that Mr Lemann is just another condescending MSM gatekeeper looking askance at a form with which he's unfamiliar are certain to have fits, but in this case they'll just be whining. Mr Lemann is familiar with blogging, and his critique of citizen journalists betrays a genuine curiosity.

August 01, 2006

"Men At Work"

This year, I'm going to follow the French and take off the month of August. But just as I'll remain in Manhattan, so I won't really take the month off at all. Instead of writing at my customary voluble rate, I'm going to refer visitors to pages at Portico, all but one of them, I believe, written prior to 2006. A few are "very old" indeed, going all the way back to 2001.

Meanwhile, I'll be overhauling Portico again. I don't expect this round to alter the look and feel of the site very much, but you never know where you're going to end up (or at least I don't) when you start to think about the structure of your site, and not about text to stuff it with. I'm going to concentrate on navigation, starting with an overhaul of the "Lobby" page, which has grown very dusty and fairly useless. I expect that every page in the site will have to be edited, if only in minor ways.

It will be time to fish or cut bait with regard to one rather anemic branch of the site, the one ostensibly devoted to Words. There's a lot of undeveloped real estate there - rather like one of those Florida projects with streets but no houses.

I'll continue to move material from the Daily Blague to Portico, along with all substantive comments. Needless to say, I welcome suggestions. Write to me, if you like. What's missing? - that's what I'd really like to hear about.

Why not begin by taking a walk in London? D'you know, I can't recall the year in which my friend and I took this walk from Little Venice to Notting Hill, through Holland Park and South Kensington. 2000? 2001? (Internal evidence points to the latter.) I don't usually mislay such dates. A normal person would have a calendar to refer to, but I lost a lot of that sort of thing with a computer crash in 2003. As I will every day this month, I'll hand you the path from Portico's Vestibule - another page in serious need of overhaul - to today's destination: .

Yorkville High Street>Travels>A Walk in London