Archive for August, 2008

Open Thread Sunday: Sundial

Sunday, August 31st, 2008


Friday Movies: Elegy

Saturday, August 30th, 2008


Although I say, at Portico, that I’m no real hurry to see Elegy again, that’s not really true. The sound at the Angelika was so weirdly off that members of the audience spent a good ten minutes arguing with the management about how to proceed. We were all given those cheap red general admission tickets from ancient childhood as rain-check passes. I’ve never heard anything like what came out of the speakers. The dialogue was intelligible, more or less, but it was filtered into a flat, science-fiction-robot sound, and everybody’s voice came out at the same pitche.

Elegy is a beautifully sophisticated film, one whose marvels ripen in the mind as a haunting aftertaste.

Exercice de Style: Devolution

Saturday, August 30th, 2008


Although I am not a prescriptivist, I find the sloppy misuse of sophisticated words very annoying. It is not often that Michiko Kakutani annoys me in this way, but she did so yesterday, in a review of Curtis Sittenfield’s new novel, American Wife.

Ms. Sittenfeld’s portrait of Charlie Blackwell, however, quickly devolves into caricature.

Wrong. The portrait descends into caricature. Devolution is the opposite of evolution: it means turning backward instead of forward. Responsibilities and sovereignties devolve, falling back on the shoulders of a person (or a sovereign) when something else doesn’t happen to keep them from doing so; as, for example, when superiors leave it to cubicals to make a deadline. Devolution may be regrettable, but it has nothing to do with the deterioration that Ms Kakutani imputes to the portrait of Charlie Blackwell. You may wish that your boss did his own work, and stopped leaving it for you to finish up, but that doesn’t mean that the work itself had been made less worth doing by his irresponsibility.  

Here, then, is what Ms Kakutani ought to have written.

Ms. Sittenfeld’s portrait of Charlie Blackwell, however, quickly descends into caricature.

When you’re writing about something getting worse, steer clear of devolution.

Daily Office: Friday

Friday, August 29th, 2008



¶ Grace: Watchinig Barack Obama deliver (most of) his acceptance speech last night, I was struck by the man’s physical aptitude for leadership, and I conclude that it is his command of the pulpit that allows him to preach bedrock values without sounding old-hat.

Joe has a link to a video of the speech, and there’s a crisp, concise Editorial in the Times. But all I could think of, strangely, was Roy Jenkins’s biography of Gladstone, the most memorable political biography that I have ever read.

A very satisfying experience, that speech was, to kick off the Labor Day weekend. Enjoy it!


Reading Note: Cat Nap

Friday, August 29th, 2008


When I picked up Dostoevsky’s Demons, in the recent, highly-regarded translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, my attitude was one of distant curiosity. I was going to re-read a celebrated Nineteenth-Century novel in the context of Nineteenth-Century novels.

This attitude persisted throughout the first part of the novel, a sequence of vaguely ridiculous and embarrassing scenes pocked with opaque, inconsequent backchat. Then I turned the page, and began the first of the two chapters entitled “Night,” and everything changed. I was as if gripped by a great gothic. 

The affable but uncertain Nikolai Vsevolodovich is alone in his  study. “The sides and corners of this big room remained in shadow. His look was pensive and concentrated, not altogether at ease; his face was tired and had grown somewhat thin.” Presently Pyotr Stepanovich appears. We don’t yet know which one of these men is the ultimate string-puller, which one more committed to the nameless society that appears to be committed to the violent overthrow of Russian affairs. When Pyotr Stepanovich leaves, he is supposed to pay a visit to Nikolai Vsevolodovich’s formidable mother, Varvara Petrovna, but he doesn’t. The son falls asleep in his chair.

Soon her became totally oblivious. Varvara Petrovna, who had worn herself out with cares during those days, could not restrain herself, and after Pyotr Stepanovich, who had promised to stop and see her, left without keeping his promise, she herself ventured to visit Nicolas, though it was not her appointed time. She kept imagining: what if he were finally to say something definite? Softly, as before, she knocked on the door and, again receiving no reply, opened it herself. Seeing Nicolas sitting there somehow too motionlessly, she cautiously approached the sofa, her heart pounding. She was as if struck that he had fallen asleep so quickly and that he could sleep like that, sitting so straight and so motionlessly; even his breathing was almost imperceptible. His face was pale and stern, but as if quite frozen, motionless; his eyebrows were slightly knitted and frowning; he decidedly resembled an inanimate wax figure. She stood over him for three minutes or so, scarcely breathing, and was suddenly overcome with fear; she went out on tiptoe, paused in the doorway, hastily made a cross over him, and withdrew unnoticed, with a new heavy feeling, and a new anguish.

He slept for a long time, more than an hour, still in the same torpor; not a muscle in his face moved, not the slightest movement appeared in his whole body; his eyebrows remained as sternly knitted. If Varvara Petrovna had stayed another three minutes, she would certainly have been unable to bear the oppressive feeling of this lethargic motionlessness and would have wakened him. But suddenly he opened his eyes himself and, still without stirring, sat for another ten minutes as if peering persistently and curiously at some startling object in the corner of the room, though there was nothing there either new or unusual.

And this is just the beginning of the dark and stormy night.

Daily Office: Thursday

Thursday, August 28th, 2008



¶ “G” is for Goltz: For the true skinny on what’s been going on in Georgia, visit Michael J Totten’s Middle East Journal, where reporter extraordinaire Tom Goltz — the go-to guy for what’s going on in the Caucasus — backs up Georgian government spokesman Patrick Worms, making only a few small corrections in the official account.


¶ Creative Contradiction: Lance Arthur warns that you do not want the creative director job — especially if you’re creative.


¶ Bloatware: When I went back over this story, about how Best Buy is handling bloatware (the come-ons for software that are loaded by manufacturers onto new computers), I thought that there was something about customers telling a representative what they wanted; but, no: that was in this story, about camera phones.


Museum Note: Photo Shoot

Thursday, August 28th, 2008


For the first time since the late Sixties, I went up to the Cloisters by myself this afternoon. Now that I’m in my early sixties, I guess I’m old enough.

I went on a mission. Monday is Labor Day, and summer hours end tomorrow. The prospect of reverting to Matins, Lauds, &c when posting everyday links in the Daily Office made me think that some monastic imagery might be appropriate — and what could be a better source of such imagery than the Cloisters?

I’d have gone tomorrow afternoon, had I been able to find someone willing to spend the final allotment of summer hours in my priceless company. But I wasn’t. And the weather promised to be rather nicer today; it’s supposed to warm up tomorrow. In any case, I was dying to get out of the house. So I decided to see this week’s Friday movie a day ahead of time, and to proceed from the theatre up to Fort Tryon Park.

No big deal. The movie, Elegy, was showing at the Angelika. When it was over, I hopped right back to the Broadway-Lafayette/Bleecker Street station and took the first uptown IND train. One stop away, at West 4th, I ascended an escalator and stood at the platform marked “A.” I didn’t have to wait long. Within half an hour, I was ascending an elevator, from the depths of Manhattan to the heights of Fort Washington Avenue.

(“Wow, I can do this! Go directly from Broadway and Houston to Upstate Manhattan!” You can tell that I grew up in the suburbs.)

At the Cloisters, I felt like a booster, because I’d been reading John Colapinto’s New Yorker article about shoplifters on the train (the piece is not online, sadly). I clipped through the galleries on my way to the Brie Cloister as though I were making a beeline for booty. As indeed I was: time for lunch! (It’s the “Trie” Cloister, of course, but now that they have a food stall that sells baguette sandwiches and wraps, fruit, snacks and drinks, I get confused.)  

Then I took a lot of pictures, in about fifteen minutes. I tried but failed to escape the gift shop without making any purchases (who knew that John Freely — the father, presumably, of Orhan Pamuk’s translator, Maureen Freely — wrote a book about Istanbul? Shelved right next to Orhan Pamuk’s book of the same name. Çok güzel!).

Passing by the New Leaf Café on my walk back to the subway, I made a note of their hours. I’m going to try to have lunch up there in a few weeks, as soon as I dream up another mission.

Daily Office: Wednesday

Wednesday, August 27th, 2008



¶ Shrine: Okuninushi no Mikoto, the principal deity in residence at the Izumo Taisha shrine in Japan, has vacated the premises in order to facilitate periodic renovations.


¶ Delanoë: Bertrand Delanoë, the gay mayor of Paris, will seek to lead his country’s Socialist Party. A breath of fresh air after the narcissism of the Hollande-Royal team that was. (via JMG)


¶ Elsewhere: Starting out in New York, right out of school and with no special resources to fall back on. I can’t imagine it! Yet a fresh crop of hopefuls arrives every year, and, right about now, the ones who are still here are celebrating a tentative first anniversary. Cara Buckley reports.


Morning Read: Puritanic Sands

Wednesday, August 27th, 2008


¶ In Moby-Dick, we have “The Street,” another short chapter, makes me wonder about New Bedford and New York, as well as other ports such as Salem. Why wasn’t New York, for one thing, a whaling port? Why didn’t the sailors of New Bedford find something else to exploit after the advent of petroleum?

The chapter ends with one of Melville’s prose poems.

And the women of New Bedford, they bloom like their own red roses. But roses only bloom in summer; whereas the carnation of their cheeks is perennial as sunlightg in the seventh heavens. Elsewhere match that bloom of theirs, ye cannot, save in Salem, where they tell me the young girls breathe such musk, their sailor sweethearts smell them miles off shore, as though they were drawing nigh the odorous Moluccas instead of the Puritanic sands.

¶ Chapter VI of Don Quixote is given over to literary criticism — of a sort. The priest and the barber haul down the books in Don Quixote’s library and consign most, but not all, of them to the flames — or at least to a pile in the corral. I expect that to be a true Cervantes scholar you have to read all these books — if you can find them. I don’t, for example, think that Faber Finds is the the place to go — yet — for a copy of Lenchor Ortega de Ubeda’s Felixmarte of Hyrcania (1556).

¶ In Wilson, an omnium-gatherum, blog-entry of a chapter, “God — And the Americans.” The idea seems to be that the English resisted modernism of any kind — except possibly in fiction. The chapter begins with a very disappointing statement: “Our story occures against the background of Europe’s collective suicide…” Even Wilson knows it’s more interesting than that. He seizes very interestingly on Pius X, “the first holder of that office in modern times not to be educated beyond seminaries, nor to be of noble birth”:

In The Makers of Modern Europe (1930), Count Carlo Sforza remarked upon the peasanty origins of the anti-modernist pope. Whereas “the prejudices of the aristocrat are often counterbalanced by his scepticism, always by his laziness …. those of the peasant have no counterpoise.” Characters such as Pope Pius are “hard on the noblest minds whose doubts and misgivings they do not understand” and “very often put thei whole trust in fanatics who please them with certainties.” There would be plenty of repetitions of this phenomenon in the coming century of the Common Man, when the political dogmas and simplicities of communism and fascism would have little time for noble minds with doubts and misgivings.

¶ In Squillions, I see that editor Barry Day follows certain epistolary threads through to their conclusion even if that means advancing the story by four or five decades. Coward and Esmé Wynne went their different ways after World War I, but they kept in touch, despite the fact that Wynne was a zealous Christian scientist with a knack for catching out her old friend’s moments of cowardice. (“Some things were too serious to be taken seriously,” writes Day.) In 1936, Coward wrote to Wynne about what he called his “realism” and the wintry chill of his expectations of fellow man. But:

You may well imagine that with such a jaundiced view I am a very unhappy creature but this is not so — I have a very nice time all told and enjoy life keenly — I can’t explain this — perhaps there will be a reckoning — perhaps I only think I’m happy — perhaps I shall suddenly find Jesus but I still have the grace to hope, both for his sake and for mine, that I don’t!

In the Book Review: War and Peace

Wednesday, August 27th, 2008


I feel myself getting closer to the moment when I say, “I don’t need to be doing this anymore.” This week’s issue is so crummy — “grossly inadequate,” the only imaginable alternative, sounds like a euphemism — that the idea of reforming the Book Review seems only to be so massively unlikely that one might as well direct one’s constructive impulses to some other project.

Daily Office: Tuesday

Tuesday, August 26th, 2008



¶ Golden Rule: If I wanted to be “hilariously misogynistic” (a controdiction in terms that only frat boys miss), I’d remind Democrats that it’s not too late to nominate Hillary Clinton! Why? Because unattractive, power-mad executives are never assassinated in this country. Only the appealing idealists, such as Lincoln and Kennedy, draw the shooters’ malice. Why, they’re already out to kill Barack Obama!


¶ Rich: Richard Reeves reviews a new hate-the-rich book, in the Telegraph.


¶ Faber Finds: They’re here! As predicted years ago, by Jason Epstein: books on demand. You may have to wait a couple of weeks — and I don’t know if the titles are available here at all. But if Faber & Faber is doing it, the serious American publishers will follow suit. (via (more…)

Morning Read: Pals

Tuesday, August 26th, 2008


¶ You may have noticed that Melville’s name never comes up when the great funny writers of the past are spoken of. It’s not, perhaps, from want of trying on the writer’s part.

However, a good laugh is a mighty good thing, and rather too scarce a good thing; the more’s the pity. So, if any one man, in his own proper person, afford stuff for a good joke to anybody, let him not be backward, from let him cheerfully allow himself to spend and be spent in that way. And the man that has anything bountifully laughable about him, be sure there is more in that man than you perhaps think for.

The language of the Standard Version — or whatever version of Scripture in which New Englanders marinated themselves — doesn’t appear to have been cut out for capers. (more…)

Daily Office: Monday

Monday, August 25th, 2008



¶ Denver: We can’t say what the most interesting thing about the Democratic Conventional will have been, but we can expect that it might have something to do with the media and the unmediated. On Friday, the MSM scooped (and thereby foiled) Barack Obama’s attempt to name his running mate directly to supporters’ cell phones.


¶ Safe Conduct: Anna Post, great-great-granddaughter of Emily Post, offers sensible rules of order at The Etiquette Effect, in collaboration with Hyatt Place hotels. On “Using Technology Appropriately”:

Just because you can bring your phone with you wherever you go, doesn’t mean it’s appropriate to use it. Don’t walk into a meeting or building while still on the phone and don’t bring your cell phone into a business meeting unless you are expecting an urgent call. If a client starts using their PDA during a meeting, you may choose to ignore it. A riskier proposition would be to confront him and say, “Bill, should we reschedule? This doesn’t seem to be a good time for you.” But this is the best way to send the message that you’re not going to tolerate this breach of manners.


¶ Teach: David Olivier (that’s Slimbo to you) has embarked on a truly heroic adventure: teaching math to middle-schoolers in New Orleans. The (first) Week in Review.

Morning Read: Squillions

Monday, August 25th, 2008


A pattern seems to be developing. I begin the Morning Read with Moby-Dick. Then I put Melville down and pick up Cervantes, looking forward to the breath of sanity. (more…)

Books on Monday: This Is the Life

Monday, August 25th, 2008


Since writing about Joseph O’Neill’s first novel, I’ve had a chance to discuss it with the author (this is the life!), and nothing that he told me in our brief exchange prompted me to alter my remarks.

Mr O’Neill did agree with me that the dust jacket, designed by Chip Kidd way back when, when only designers knew who Chip Kidd was, and the author photograph by Nigel Parry, ditto (mutatis mutandis), is probably rather valuable.

Mad Men Note: Beyond Reclamation

Sunday, August 24th, 2008


You should have seen Kathleen’s face when, fifteen seconds after I said it, the guy the with musical zipper announced, “It’s Mozart!”

Rapping the opening bars of Eine kleine Nachtmusik convinced her.

I guess I had to have been there.

Weekend Update: Re-Education

Sunday, August 24th, 2008


On Friday afternoon, as I was hunkered down in the kitchen preparing not one but two dinners — Megan and Ryan would be coming that evening; an old friend of Kathleen’s on Saturday — I had to admit that it had been too long since my last serious dinner. For one thing, I had no idea where the gelatine was, and without gelatine I could not make the raspberry charlotte that appeared on the cover of Saveur several years ago. looking utterly luscious. (I’d made it twice before). So I had to go downstairs to buy some, and it was on this errand that I re-thought my plans. I would prepare that night’s menu the next night, and make something simple instead. In addition to the gelatine, I bought chicken, new potatoes, and corn. In the fridge at home, I had a rib steak and a sugar baby (a spherical, seedless watermelon). I was set.

In keeping with this ruder fare, I laid the table on the balcony, not the one in the living room. The weather was perfect! Megan and Ryan arrived about fifteen minutes early, before I’d had a chance to change clothes but after I’d cleaned up after a major screw-up. Into a four-cup measure, I poured the milk for a cornbread recipe, broke in the eggs, and then attempted to beat these ingredients with an electric eggbeater. The measuruing cup was nowhere near large enough to contain the instant surge. Milk and egg flew all over the counter and dripped down the front of the dishwasher into a puddle.

As I say, I’d put this disaster behind me by the time the newlyweds walked in. Not only had I cleaned it up and put the cornbread batter into the oven, but I’d stopped screaming at myself. It was as though I were yelling at someone else. “I can’t believe what an idiot you are!” — expletive-laden variations on that tune. “Even a five year-old would have known better!” It really did make me feel better, if only by occupying my mind while my hands bent to the drudgery of wiping up one of the two things that you don’t want to drop on a kitchen floor, eggs and oil.

By five o’clock on Saturday afternoon, I’d tidied the apartment as usual, and also whipped up some beet borscht for dinner. I’d begun to set the table. And I’d started to feel very sorry for myself. All I wanted to do was to curl up with Dostoevsky’s Demons. Kathleen suggested that we make a reservation at a local restaurant, but I was too conscious of the expensive tenderloin that I already hadn’t done anything with the night before. So I pushed on grimly. Once I’d finished setting the table, I felt much better. I saw that there was nothing to do but sauté the beef and wait for the sauce — a combination of wine, stock and cream — to boil down, so that I could stir in some Roquefort cheese.

This morning, I woke up resolved to have breakfast at the coffee shop across the street, but I changed my mind an hour or so later, when I divined that Kathleen really needed to stay in bed. After two rather vinous evenings, my head was far from clear, but perhaps that was for the best. I may have forgotten where the gelatine was, but my hands knew how to load the dishwasher, make coffee, and sizzle some sausages. (I was even up to squeezing a bagful of oranges.)

If I weren’t so tired — as it happens, I’m overdue for a B-12 shot (my gut doesn’t absorb this essential vitamin) — I’d be in the kitchen now, consolidating the weekend’s experiences, or at least cleaning the refrigerator. I am still looking for what I call my blogger’s kitchen — an ideal place that holds nothing but what’s needed to make the next meal. If you know a sorcerer who can arrange such a marvel, please let me know.

Open Thread Sunday: Shod Quad

Sunday, August 24th, 2008


Friday Movies: Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Saturday, August 23rd, 2008


Woody Allen reigns in Spain. The poster is another example of egregious Hollywood “billing.” The actress playing Vicky (the first name in the title, after all) has at least as big a part as Scarlett Johansson’s, but Rebecca Hall has yet to make herself known to anything like the same extent.

Daily Office: Friday

Friday, August 22nd, 2008



¶ Bar Code: In typical Times fashion, John Schwartz’s story doesn’t spell out what two graduates of a private school here actually did in connection with their “freelance science project” to expose the mislabeling of fish in New York markets and restaurants — beyond shopping, dining, and marinating morsels of fish in alcohol — but Harriets the Spy everywhere are in for a technology upgrade.