Archive for January, 2008

On the Simplification of Things

Thursday, January 31st, 2008


Suddenly, things are simpler. We’re down to four serious presidential candidates, two for each party. Once upon a time, their intramural competition for the two election spots would have taken place pretty much out of sight. Modern television news hadn’t discovered itself, hadn’t learned how different it was from print journalism. The process of self-discovery is still ongoing. Consider Fox News’s bundling of the Super Bowl on Super Sunday with the nationwide primaries on Super Tuesday. Super!

My aunt, like everyone I know, is very excited about Barack Obama. I would be, too, if it weren’t for Hillary Clinton. And if we weren’t seven or eight months away from the Democratic Party’s convention. Seven or eight months of fratricidal structure, conducted in full view of friend and foe alike! The prospect is so curdling that I take positive comfort in the “suspension” of John Edwards’s campaign. Perhaps, when the “black” candidate and the “woman” candidate have knocked each other out with their croquet mallets, Mr Edwards will return, to pose a serious threat to the Republican Party contender. Now that he is out of the race, however, the one thing that I am prolbablyh not going to do is follow my aunt’s advice and watch tonight’s debates.

Clearly I have become a deep-dyed cynic in my old age, like the Adolphe Menjou character in Frank Capra’s State of the Union — a film that I urge everyone to see every time a presidential election comes round. I really don’t care who’s in the White House so long aa it (a) is a Democrat but (b) is not Jimmy Carter. You would think that we don’t have to worry about the second part anymore, but Democrats have an alarming ability to bloom into Jimmy Carter hybrids. Mrs Clinton is just as tedious to listen to as the Georgia president, while Mr Obama has all of those outsider’s disadvantages.

If I were a normal person, I would find a candidate that I liked — at this point, with John Edwards out of the race, it would probably be Hillary Clinton (my mistrust of Barack Obama is as visceral as everyone else’s dislike of Hillary) — and content myself with hoping that she’d win in November. But I left that kindergarten behind a long time ago. I don’t allow myself to think how grand my favorite candidate would be in the White House any more than I waste my time plannint how I’d spend lottery winnings (it helps in the latter instance that I never buy tickets). I save that for the happy January day a little less than a year from now when, if things go well, a Democrat walks through the White House door.

Happily, I’ve got the victory party covered. My daugher has fixed the date for her wedding, a few days after the election. She may think that she’s just getting married, but if the right candidate wins, her nuptials will certainly be sailing a great wave of euphoria. And if not, I’ll still be happy as can be.

Morning Read

Thursday, January 31st, 2008

morningreadia.jpg¶ In the Decameron (IV, ii): “He who is wicked and held to be good, can cheat because no one imagines he would.” This reads like a mash-up of two stories, the first a tale of one very silly woman, Mona Lisetta ( given many mocking nicknames — Lady Numbskull, Lady Birdbrain, &c), who believes that she’s so sexy that the Archangel Gabriel lusts after her, and the more slapstick account of comeuppance, in which the Archangel’s impersonator is tarred and feathered, only with honey instead of tar. Throughout, however, the tale is yet another attack on the hypocrisy of the religious orders.

¶ The end of the fifth book of the Aeneid, at last! The strange death of Palinurus — time to re-read Cyril Connolly?

¶ C. K. Williams: the end of “A Dream of Mind,” — again, at last. These poems seem to take place in the absence of gravity; I never know which way is up. Nor, for that matter of that, do I really know what the poet is talking about. This book (also called A Dream of Mind) concludes with a final long poem, “Helen.” I shall try to read it in one sitting, and then close this collection and move on to someone else.

¶ Clive James on Beatrix Potter. “Her stories attract tweeness toward them — the Peter Rabbit Ballet must be hard to take for anyone except a very tiny child — but are never winsome in themselves, mainly because of her tactile, yet quite tough, feeling for language.” Even better:

Written in a age when it was still assumed the children would not suffer brain damage from hearing a phrase they couldn’t immediately understand, the books are plentifully supplied with elevated verbal constructions. The bright child sees unfamiliar phrases going by just overhead and reaches up, while the parent is reminded of the historic privilege of being born into a civilization where the morality of children’s books, even at their worthily—meant worst, has evolved through supply and demand, and not been imposed by the state according to a plan.”

¶ Today’s Blogging Hero: Mark Frauenfelder, of Something to take up later today, when writing for tomorrow about blogs:

Q: What tips or advice would you like to hear with bloggers?

A: I think it’s really important to write a good headline. It’s better to be accurate than it is to be cute or clever. When you make a post, do a little summary of what it is in the headline, because a lot of people read blogs through RSS and go to the headline first to see what’s going on. It can make a difference in whether you get read.

As for the blog post itself, if you’re writing about something out on the Web, give a good short description of why it’s interesting. When I see something I want to talk about, I outline some of the questions that readers might ask, like “Why is this interesting?” or, “Why is this important?” I write down the answers, and then I post.

¶ Diana to Deborah, in September 1980, on the subject of Evelyn Waugh’s correspondence: “Isn’t it amazing who the person one’s writing to influences one.” Indeed.

Not so much fun:

But what happened with Jebb’s silly film shows the depth of seething hatred Decca feels for us. It is much more painful to hate than to be hated, & I am aware that her life is in many ways rather awful, but not quite awful enough to excuse her behaviour. As far as I go, I put her out of my mind.”

Morning Read

Wednesday, January 30th, 2008

morningreadia.jpgGreetings from the Learning Curve! I used the Dragon to dictate this morning’s read, and as a result the whole business took ages. I’ll get better at it, though. Dictation certainly beats trying to prop thick books open while typing from them. The thing is not to put the books away until they’ve been consulted for cleanup. I wonder: are there any conceptual artists out there who are “working with” unpasteurized dictation? Talk about absurdity on the cheap!

¶ The theme for stories on the Fourth Day of the Decameron is “those whose love ended unhappily.” The first tale, about Ghismonda, the daughter of a jealous prince, tells us that “she was youthful and vivacious, and she possessed rather more intelligence than a woman needs.” It’s curious that the story has never received operatic treatment. It has a climactic scene to rival Salome, followed by a kind of Liebestod. Before dying, however, Ghismonda rattles off the old medieval delusion about the wheel of fortune, so beloved perhaps because it offered the promise of respite from an increasingly stratified society.

Many kings, many great princes were once poor; many a ploughman or shepherd, not only in the past but in the present, was once exceedingly wealthy.

¶ The Aeneid: The Trojan fleet is set on fire, but most ships are saved in a providential thunderstorm. Aeneas is advised to leave the women and children behind while he sets out for Rome with just his fighting men. This seems to be the first appearance of women among the band of Trojan exiles; they’ve been introduced, not surprisingly, only to be got rid of.

¶ C K Williams, “To Listen”:

For the dead speak from affection, dream says, there’s kindness in the voices of the dead.
I listen again, but I still hear only fragments of the elaborate discourse the dead speak;
when I try to capture its gist more is effaced, there are only faded words strewn on the page
of my soul that won’t rest from its need to have what it thinks it can have from the dead.

Sometimes, I think that this is what poetry is for: memorizing lines that seem right even though they’re not understood; later, their sense becomes clear, enlightened by experiences that we would have missed without them.

¶ Clive James on Alfred Polgar:

Critics are always remembered best for how they sound when on the attack. Schadenfreude lies deep in the human soul, and to read a tough review seems a harmless way of indulging it. But the only critical attacks that really count are written in defense of value.

(In an interesting note: “Alfred Brendel put me onto Polgar.”)

¶ In September 1979, Diana writes Deborah to regret that she can’t come to Sophy’s wedding because her husband, Sir Oswald Mosley, is too ill to be left in France. “I will get her present next week, there’s a list at PJ isn’t there.” PJ stands for the stylish emporium in Sloane Square. Last night, Kathleen and I had dinner with the banker who lives right behind Peter Jones. Her life is being made a perfect hell by adjacent construction (nothing to do with the shop). The runaround that she gets while trying to find someone responsible to talk to sounds perfectly universal.

¶ Today’s Blogging Hero: Mike Masnick, of Techdirt. Aha! Someone else who claims to have been a blogger before there was blogging. An interesting thing about this business site is that its legitimacy is thought, correctly, I’m sure, to be enhanced by the presence of advertising. Some of the advertisers are clients of the firm!”

¶ Speaking of business, while slogging through an impenetrable passage having to do with commercial leases in Le rouge et le noir, I accepted the fact that I am going to have to get a trot. I can’t go on wondering if Stendhal is addicted to non sequiturs.

What I'm Reading/In the Book Review

Wednesday, January 30th, 2008


While tidying up over the weekend, I got a bit drastic with the bedside pile. I am actually reading all of these books. What’s more: at the moment, I am not reading any other books. I regret having stalled on J M Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year, because it’s a very interesting book. That’s part of the problem: because of its three interlocking story lines, reading the book requires greater than ordinary attentiveness. Nancy Mitford’s two best-known novels (one volume) are there for bedtime reading.

While nothing could be more trivial, or of less general interest, than the ups and downs of my reading piles, casting the glare of publicity on the matter from week to week has proved to be instructive and salutary. I can hardly bear to buy a book at this point — all the new ones in the house are Amazon orders made weeks ago. Happily, there’s nothing in this week’s Book Review that tempts me.

¶ Death’s Army.

Morning Read

Tuesday, January 29th, 2008

morningreadia.jpg¶ Decameron: The Fourth Day. The introduction, an authorial aside defending the burgeoning of vernacular literature — Boccaccio was writing in a world more or less without it (aside from, ahem, Dante) — has on at least once occasion served as a replacement for yesterday’s very saucy tale about putting the Devil in Hell. Not that today’s is without its capsicum: “Their bills are not where you think, and require a special sort of diet.” If you ask me, this is a jolly improvement on the original, which says only, “tu non sai donde elle s’imbeccano.” McWilliam’s little crack about the “special diet” is wonderfully “off-color”…. ¶ In the Aeneid, the funeral games come to an end at last with the boys’ mock battle, and we approach a scene that I have seen on a museum wall somewhere — at the Met? The burning of the Trojan ships. Goody! Something to look forward to for tomorrow. Not…. ¶ C K Williams, “The Knot.” I’ve no idea what this means, but it’s a pretty line: “knots of purpose we could touch into as surely as we touch the rippling lattice of a song.” I have no patience for the metaphysics of this verse, for the poet’s mad persistence in distinguishing between “spirit or flesh.” There is certainly flesh, and their may be spirt, but they are not elements in a dualism. That’s over!…. ¶ Clive James, nominally on Octavio Paz but actually, and with sweet infatuation, about Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, of whom he writes, fetchingly: “Though her faith was real, it undoubtedly came in handy.” Sterling. At the end, he returns to the more recent Mexican poet:

The correspondence [of Sor Juana Inés was lost through sheer carelessness: the Spanish carelessness that Paz defines in scathing terms: “It is said that the passion that corrodes the Spanish peoples is envy, but worse and more weighty is carelessness: the creator of our deserts.” When he brings in a phrase like creador de nuestros desertos, Paz shows us the transatlantic cable that runs from Unamuno and Ortega to himself and Vargas Llosa: the charge of energy that brought Spanish civilization to life again, offshore in the Americas. Spanish expository prose in the twentieth century was a miracle that these men created, but they didn’t dream it up out of the air. There was already a long heritage of rhetorical strengtrh in the poetry, where the telling phrases lie separate that would later be strung together in a coruscating style.

¶ Diana to Debo, October 1978, oh, what a treat! (But I suppose I had better mention that “Colonel” is Gaston Palewski, Nancy’s BF who, after twenty years of fooling around, up and married somebody rich. Nancy’s horrible cancer commenced presently. You decide.)

It was so rich having a chat yesterday.

I don’t think I told you a very odd thing about Colonel. We were alone & he suddenly said he’d been terribly hurt because Naunce didn’t mention him in her testament. So I said ‘But her will was just one line leaving everything to Debo,’ & he said ‘Oui, je sais, mais elle aurait pu quand même dire un mot de moi.’

Well, can you imagine, isn’t that wanting everything all at once! He maried [somebody else], & yet he expects that! I feel certain he simply wants it for his biographers, if any. He was almost in tears. When I told him about the telly thing, he cheered up & wanted to know who is to act him in it. I’m afraid vanity is strong. He must be very put out by the Pop dying because he knew him from Venice & loved saying so.

“I’m afraid vanity is strong… and loved saying so” — English doesn’t get more delicious…. ¶ Today’s Blogging Hero: Frank Warren, of Post Secret. Goodness! When did I last check it out? Perhaps I ought to link to it, under a new heading, “Divertissements” or “Sunday Morning” — how long, I wonder, are Internet weekends going to continue to be dead? The Post Secret postcards are titillating to read, of course, but it’s the sharp designs that carry the site. There is, it’s true, a nasty pong to it all: it’s one thing to hear somebody’s deep dark secrets, but quite another to know that somebody is doing some pretty awful things! Kathleen would take one look at Post Secret and, after that, never again…. ¶ Stendhal: “Le grand malheur des petites villes de France et des gouvernements par élections, comme celui de New York, c’est de ne pas pouvoir oublier qu’il existe au monde des êtres comme M de Rênal.” Yes, the great misfortune of elected governments such as New York’s is the occasional inescapability of beings such as M de Giuliani.

Qu'est-ce que c'est qu'un blogue?

Tuesday, January 29th, 2008

Although I haven’t received my copy, George Snyder was kind enough to pass along the link to Sarah Boxer’s survey, “Blogs,” in the current issue of The New York Review of Books.

George wrote,

I will be very interested to know what you make of Miss Sarah Boxer’s piece on Blogs and books on blogs in the 14 February issue of the NYRB, for one can say she covers some ground, it was my opinion she leaves out an important element —


Or people like us.

Indeed. The curious thing about these surveys is that, even when they acknowledge Chris Anderson’s Long Tail (Ms Boxer does not), they don’t seem to understand how it underlies what is really remarkable about the Blogosphere. It allows the handful of “people like us” to gather in a way that was never before possible in the history of mankind. There are never enough of us in any one place to begin to form a group, and our affinities don’t bring us together geographically. Web logs have changed that.

Unlike other small bands of agglutinated aficionados, however, “people like us,” George, are very, very articulate. We would not be fired by The New York Review of Books for writing as we do — although there are several editors of other periodicals whom we should certainly fire!

I hope to have more to say about this on Friday.

Latter-Day Christmas

Tuesday, January 29th, 2008

riverviewi01.jpgIt’s a bit like Christmas. A pile of new toys. Trying to figure out how they work without breaking them. Wanting to play with all of them at the same time, even though that’s impossible. For a few hours, feeling quite carried away, amazed that the cornucopia has dumped so many treats in one’s lap. Very slowly, getting used to them — and finding out the little things that are wrong with them (always so heartbreaking).

I have two new toys.  The first is my second RoomGroove. the RoomGroove is a speaker system from Klipsch — the superior competitors of Bose — for the iPod.  For as long as there have been iPods, I have been telling friends that I have outgrown personal stereo systems — the sort of thing that you walk around with, looking vaguely spaced out.  The second person on my block to own a Walkman, I used to be quite excessive about having my own music on my person at all times, but I really did outgrow that.  There came a time when I no longer wish to escape the world around me, and the insulation of a private wall of sound went from chic to annoying. And perhaps my hearing wasn’t so good, and I needed it — all of it — for ambient input.

A couple of occasions since I got my Nano, I’ve wondered outside and enjoyed what was playing, but for the most part I listen to this device at home where it serves as an unexpectedly agreeable update on the table radio of yore.  The curious thing is that how completely different a table radio is from stereo system — I’ve known that since I was in my teens — but rather how nice it is to have a table radio again, after forty years. The difference is that this table radio plays only music that I really love, because, of course, I put it there. And now, it plays it in the two rooms where I spend most of my time.

I am using my other new toy to write this.  It is called Dragon Naturally Speaking, and it seems to work pretty well, although I’m still slow at it. The Dragon, as I can’t help thinking of it, gets all the big words right, but it mixes up the everyday pronouns and prepositions, which all seem to sound alike.  Such small words are hard to proof.  Of course, I could type all of this much faster than I’ve dictated it, but I’m curious to see the different things that will come out of my mouth, things that would never come out of my fingers.  My fingers are critical snobs incapable of saying, for example, “I read Blackwater Lightship this weekend and I really loved it!” At some point during the third week of prep school, I learned that it would be better to chop off my fingers than type such an insipid sentence.  But I can still say it — as you can see.

The point of the dictation software is to capture for transcription the off-the-cuff remarks with which I intend to replace my not very competent readings of pages from Portico.  (You see?  I really do speak and write pretty much the same.) these new podcasts will require two computers for production, the desktop for recording my voice in the lap top for transcribing it.  It is probably not beyond the capacity of either computer to do both jobs at the same time, but it is certainly beyond me to imagine how on earth did tell it how to do it.  So: two computers.  Two mikes, too.

Good heavens, I could go on and on.  I already have!

Books on Monday: Beginner's Greek

Monday, January 28th, 2008


James Collins’s new book is not perfect, but it is very good and, even more, very promising. The novel is extremely well-written and its wit most welcome. Its failing is the most forgivable fault that an author can have: Mr Collins is a little too easy on his hero, Peter Russell. Peter is a great guy, and deserves only the best that life as to offer even if he is an investment banker. If you don’t like Peter, you need a pill of some kind. As the protagonist of a novel, however, it is Peter’s job to be tried and tested a bit more rigorously than the author — a softie? — seems to have the stomach for. Assuming that Peter is something of an alter ego, we may assume that Mr Collins has got his tender-hearted anxieties out of his system, and will be appropriately merciless (up to a point!) to his next bunch of characters.

¶ Beginner’s Greek.

Food for Thought

Monday, January 28th, 2008

¶ On why it is inappropriate for thinking people to talk about Stephen King — unless perchance they have something good to say.

Morning Read

Monday, January 28th, 2008

morningreadia.jpg ¶ Boccaccio’s word, translated by McWilliam as “adolescent,” is fanciullesco. “Girlish” would have been better. I wish that we could simply import “fanciullesco” into English. McWilliam notes that III, x — the story of Alibech and Rustico — used to be too hot to handle (translate). And no wonder! “La rissurezion della carne”! How’s that for a euphemism (for an erection). Putting the “devil” back into “hell.” Stelle!…. ¶ In the Aeneid, an archery context. Footnotes might explain what Acestes’s arrow, bursting into flames, portends (not that I’m keen to know)….¶ C K Williams: “rising perhaps out of the fearful demands consciousness makes for linkage, coherence, congruence” — I hope that Steve Laico will have some tips for improving wi-fi service to the bedroom this afternoon…. ¶ Clive James, nominally on Grigory Ordzhonokidze:

The great mystery of the socialist totalitarian regimes has not been how they grew into killing machines — in retrospect, nothing seems more logical — but how the machines were put into reverse.

And he solves the mystery by taking Ordzhonokidze literally: the true victims of totalitarian oppression are the executioners. (A theme of Jonathan Littell’s Les bienveillantes)…. ¶ Debo to Decca, February 1978 (winding up the Peace Talks after the Great Scrapbook War):

I couldn’t sleep that night nor for many a night after; it made me miserable and still haunts after 9 months. I LOATHE a row of any sort, probably much more than you do because I note whenever you give an interview it ends with “I love a scrap” or something like, but I know those scraps are matters of principle or theory or political something and not inter-family — still you are more of a row-er than me I guess.


I wrotre to you once before to say something of this sort, as we are all getting OLD & will soon be quietly dead so I guess it’s better not to delve into row-making subjects.

How wrong, Your Grace; how wrong!….¶ Today’s Blogging Hero: David Rothman, of TeleRead. Like all the others, I’ve never heard of him, but for once you’d think that I might have done. I thought about getting a Kindle, but on the day when that impulse ran at its hightest, Amazon was so behind in production that sales were halted. Cooler reflection inclines me to watch and wait, as the instrument’s performance will improve as its price drops. (God bless the early adopters.)…. ¶ Is Stendhal making musical jokes?: “Il essaya de la cacher avec le verre vert, mais il lui fut absolument impossible de faire honneur au vin du Rhin.” Verre vert, vin du Rhin? Do admit.

Milord Huffanpuff

Sunday, January 27th, 2008

Upstairs at Caffè Grazie, a very agreeable destination for after-concert repasts, right around the corner from the Metropolitan Museum.

As the picture suggests, my life has hardly been an unmitigated misery for the past couple of days. But I haven’t had much time for sitting down, or any at all for thinking. I’ve been on the go since first thing Thursday morning. On Friday, I had to be at Ruptured & Crippled at noon, to see the rheumatologist; a Remicade infusion followed at one. The good news on the infusion front was that I’d gone a full three months since the last one. I hadn’t meant to push the interval so far past ten weeks, but twelve is how it worked out, and as I was none the worse for the delay, Dr Magid and I could congratulate ourselves (and the makers of Remicade) upon having gone from six to five to four infusions per year within the space of twelve months. The only thing better than a wonder drug is being able to get by on less of it.

On Friday night, I went to the museum for the first of this season’s Met Artists concerts. A very bad boy, I left at the interval. The music was wonderful, as always, but I was tempted away by the prospect of dinner with Kathleen, which I’d have missed if I’d stayed. She was still at the office at nine, and about to leave. Instead of going home, she met me at Caffè Grazie, where we had a lovely dinner, although the “personal” pizza that she ordered was as big as a regular from Ottomanelli’s.

After the usual tidying-up on Saturday afternoon (during which I listened to Don Carlo and thought how much I’d have enjoyed being a censor during the anciem régime), I attacked the kitchen. The kitchen didn’t really need attacking, but that just made the task more effective. Instead of being demoralized by carrying loads of decayed leftovers to the garbage chute, I had plenty of energy for taking inventory — and then for running across the street to stock up on shortfalls.

Satisfying as all of that domestic accomplishment was, I was stalling and I knew it. Sitting in a large box in the blue room was the second RoomGroove, purchased expressly to act as a receiver for transmissions from the first unit, in the bedroom.*  Would I figure out how to make this work? At first, it didn’t. But then it did!

Tomorrow afternoon, I’m meeting with Steve Laico, technical adviser to The Daily Blague. Among other things, we’re going to look at voice recognition software. Having recorded a thick wad of PodCasts through the fall and early winter, I’ve decided that reading scripts is not for me, and I’d like to experiment with ex tempore speaking from bullet points. Text obsessive that I am, however, I’ll have to have transcripts!  I also hope to learn a few thing about a more sophisticated handling of images.

It’s all phew.

* In other words, music playing on the Nano in the bedroom should be able to be heard in the blue room, even with the bedroom unit muted. If the new RoomGroove didn’t pick up a signal from the old one (or vice versa), I’d have simply made an expensive and unnecessary upgrade from the Logitech portable that I bought for the Thanksgiving trip to St Croix.

Friday Movies: There Will Be Blood

Saturday, January 26th, 2008

Union Square at the worst time of the year.

This week, I shall be very brief. I went to see There Will Be Blood because I hoped that it would disprove my discomfort with this year’s Academy Awards nominations. Three of the five best-picture nominees are intensely violent, male-centered dramas. (I say this without having seen No Country For Old Men.) A fourth, Atonement, offers a distinctly unsympathetic critique of the male hierarchy of class background, but it is not without its cataclysms. Only Juno resists this rampant guyism.

There Will Be Blood turns out to be about nothing more than how awful a man can be — and how symphonically that awfulness can be represented on the screen. Potential background stories about such things as the imaginative poverty of the American frontier, cavalier attitudes toward workplace safety, or the anaerobic deadweight of extractive economies are muddled by the protagonist’s bewilderingly inconsistent sociopathy. What this film boils down to is the virtuosity of Daniel Day-Lewis’s acting — and of the men and women of the film’s Makeup Department.

What was the Academy thinking?

Morning News: On Jérôme Kerviel's Schooling

Friday, January 25th, 2008

It will take a while, I expect, for a clear narrative to explain Jérôme Kerviel’s disastrous trades at SocGen. All we know now is that nobody can figure out how the young man contrived to hide his balloon of unauthorized bets. Well, we do know one other thing. It is mentioned in almost every news story, even though it has nothing to do with the wrongdoing. Mr Kerviel did not attend one of the Grandes Écoles — those redoubtable institutions that the Times this morning compared to Harvard and MIT. No; he attended a “business college in Lyon.” We all know that.

Isn’t it interesting that we all know that — that Mr Kerviel’s education (or lack of it) has been established as an integral part of his story? I wouldn’t want to be a French outsider trying to follow in the Breton clerk’s footsteps anytime soon, not while the portcullis of privilege, clattering shut even as we speak, bars entry to the Elysian fields of French advanced placement. It would be interesting to know the identity of the gatekeeper who made sure that early reports of SocGen’s losses gleamed with a detail that, however irrelevant, no journalist would be able to resist.

Friday Front: George Packer on Hillary Clinton and "inspiration"

Friday, January 25th, 2008

Who wouldn’t be a bleeding-heart liberal, writing in such cushy surroundings?

As a rule, I agree with the articles that inspire my Friday Fronts. This week’s ticked me off.

¶ George Packer on Hillary Clinton and “inspiration.”

About the Morning Read

Thursday, January 24th, 2008

Big Daddy’s, the newest neighborhood eatery, on Second at 83rd. It is almost as retro as the diner in Pleasantville — clientele included! The sound system, however, played “Love Shack,” by the B-52s. It’s really a very B-52s kind of place.

Yesterday, I just jumped in and filed the first “Morning Read” entry, without any explanations. I relied, somewhat lazily, on the snapshot of the stack of books to provide an idea of what the text referred to. It might not be readily evident that I have been reading bits of these books every morning for several months now. Well, most weekday mornings. The rubric is: a story from the  Decameron; one hundred lines of the Aeneid; two poems by C K Williams, from the recent Collected Poems; one essay from Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia; a year’s worth of letters from The Mitfords; and one chapter each from Stendhal’s’ Le rouge et le noir and from Blogging Heroes. I would never make it through most of these books without a plan.

During the holidays, I neglected the morning read routine — but not The Mitfords. With less than twenty years to read through, I’ll be done with the collection of the six sisters’ letters in a week or two. (I’m down to four sisters. It’s quite noticeable that, no sooner did Nancy die, in 1973, than all sorts of skirmishes broke out between Decca (Jessica) on the others. The infamous scrapbook war, launched when Pamela “asked” Decca if she had “borrowed” a massive album from Chatsworth — Decca saw right away that she was being charged with theft — got fairly acrimonious. Amusingly… but enough of this.)

There will be no Morning Read this morning, because I have to go to the movies. I have to go to the movies today because I can’t go tomorrow. I can’t go tomorrow because I’m scheduled for a Remicade infusion early in the afternoon. “Then what have I?”

Morning Read

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2008

morningreadia.jpg ¶ Today’s Decameron story (III, ix), about Gillette de Narbonne and Bertrand de Roussillon, is an original — although not the original, which is in Sanskrit — of the plot of My Geisha, the bittersweet Shirley MacLaine comedy of 1962, with Yves Montand….¶ O wearying Book Five of the Aeneid! Today’s reading: the boxing match between Dares and Entellus, which would be bad enough; but then Aeneas interrupts the fight, apparently because Entellus, enraged by having fallen into his own missed “roundhouse right,” pummels Dares too gruesomely. An odd reason to break off a boxing match! I am only now old enough to tolerate the tedium of these stretches….¶ “Shells” and “Room” from A Dream of Mind: for me, very nearly impenetrable. Of all the Williams that I have read, these dream poems are the only ones not to engage me at all. Nice turn of phrase, though: “A dubious plasma”….¶ Clive James on Sir Lewis Namier (like Conrad, a Pole):

The war having been decided by the New World’s gargantuan production efforts, the United States should logically have become the centre of the Western mind as well as of its muscle. Men such as Namier ensured that the Old World would still have a say. With their help, it was English English, and not American English, that continued to be the appropriate medium for the summation and analysis of complex historical experience.

Still quite true; we have learned to speak better English in America….¶ Wonderful letter from Decca, written from Yale, where she was teaching a course in journalism, in the spring of 1976.

Am loving the students. The first few days were pure torture as I had to choose 18 students (max size of class) out of 200 applicants, goodness it was difficult. They’d all had to write on a card why they wanted to take the course. Mostly I rather followed instructions of higher-ups (deans etc) & chose illustrious-sounding people with Rhodes Scholarships. But one boy aged 17 wrote on his card “I believe I have the qualifications for a journalist as I am tall enough to look over walls & thin enough to hide behind trees,” so I could see I would worship him, & let him in. A girl wrote “There comes a time in every person’s life when he or she must burst into some new form of action.” She’s an athlete, so I let her in mainly because I long to see her burst into some new form of action.

Evidently, however, Decca’s policy of letting in the illustrious was not a complete success. (Do see Decca, two letters of January 1976 to her husband. Wonder who the snotty newspaper heir might have been!)….¶ Chapter XXII of Le rouge et le noir too long for one sitting. Without Mme de Rênal on hand, the novel is tough going….¶ Today’s Blogging Hero: Mary Jo Foley, of All About Microsoft. Why am I reading this business book? To know the territory? Arguable but dubious plasma. More to the point: why did McNally Robinson stack it among all the legitimate general-interest nonfiction titles at the front of the shop?

What I'm Reading/In the Book Review

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2008

readwhati0123a.jpgThe pile has been edited a bit: I’ve removed all the unopened books. The week’s big read, Beginner’s Greek, spent a night or two in the pile — no more — but never made it into a group picture. The bad thing about a treat like Beginner’s Greek is that it spoils both one’s taste and one’s appetite. It’s a good thing, I suppose, that such books don’t come along very often, because I should never get anything done if they did.

It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that neither the Prexy nor the Veep reads for pleasure, but — Condoleezza Rice? According to Jacob Heilbrunn’s review of Elisabeth Bumiller’s new biography, the Secretary of State was so excessively force-fed books as a child that — but I can’t bring myself to excuse or explain such an appalling failing. To give up reading for pleasure is to set one’s imagination out to pasture. It is a form of self-mutilation. Better never to have been a reader in the first place.

As for this week’s Book Review:

¶ Living with Ghosts.


Tuesday, January 22nd, 2008


The list of things that went wrong yesterday would go on and on, if I could bring myself to compile it. At one point, both iPod speaker systems (different makes, different rooms) took to stopping spontaneously. At another, the freight elevator went inexplicably on the blink. The elevators go on the blink all the time, but this time no one knew why. Then it fixed itself, just like the iPod speakers.

Then there was my long phone call with Miss G, who — it’s official now — is planning to get married in November. Yesterday, we learned that she and her fiancé have found a ring. This was good news, because it meant that Kathleen wouldn’t be checking out estate jewelry on the Internet anymore — not, at least, on my daughter’s behalf. Every once in a while, I’d be summoned to the computer, to give my opinion about a ring or two. Now that the ring issue has been dealt with, Kathleen has moved on, to mother-of-the-bride dresses.

This afternoon, Miss G — who is going to change her name, dropping the “G” part — and I were talking about family members who might or might not be invited. She rather reasonably wants to stick to people whom she knows, or has at least met more than once. It wasn’t hard to imagine how unreasonable I should have been about this ten years ago. Even though I have learned, the hard way, how unacceptable unreasonable behavior is, I was pretty dopy on the phone, assuring Megan that she was absolutely right but immediately contradicting myself with vague remarks about how “funny” people can be about weddings. It was like talking on flypaper. I finally had the sense to put Kathleen on the phone. Kathleen also assured Megan that she was absolutely right, but she sounded completely convinced of what she was saying.

I long to watch Father of the Bride — the first one, of course, with Spencer Tracy — but I know that that way only madness lies. No movie that’s as old as I am is going to help me figure out how to  cope with the concept of a cheerful and comfortable wedding that also makes sense at every turn, and every symbol chimes.

Heed This

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2008

Fossil Darling is cleaning his attic, and he wanted to know if I’d seen this clip. No, I hadn’t, but I found it quite exquisitely appalling.

Monday Morning

Monday, January 21st, 2008

Construction of the building to be known as The Lucida, 86th & Lex. Where have I seen that orange before?

After a hard day of reading for pleasure, I slept in this morning. When I crawled back into bed for what turned out to be the last time, at about a quarter to nine, I concentrated on the one or two tiny suggestions that I would have made to James Collins if I had had a chance to read the MS of Beginner’s Greek. I was so impressed by the power of my improvements that I woke myself up completely. Beginner’s Greek remains one of the warmest and most generous social comedies that I have ever read. I only wish that the author were more willing to put his hero, Peter Russell, through a passage as dark as the ones that make reading Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope so hair-raising. Beginner’s Greek is loaded with sympathetic characters. It just needs a tad more villainy.

Then I read the Times. The Monday morning Times, so different — so much thinner! — from the two weekend bundles. I’ll deal with those later today. Also, I’ve got to make good on my bogus rule about Christmas cards and Martin Luther King Day. I have to take a stab at it, anyway. Right now, I’m off to the barber, for a trim; and then to Agata & Valentina, for sandwich fixings. How much will you pay me not to post my shopping list?