Archive for April, 2009

Dear Diary: Robinet

Thursday, April 30th, 2009


At about three minutes past the hour, I had a bright idea: why not fill the electric kettle, too? But it was three minutes past the hour, and, this time, the super’s memo meant what it said: the water in the building would be shut off from eleven tonight until seven tomorrow morning, ut cleanso tankus.

The prospect of interrupted water bothered me all day. There is no real inconvenience. I wouldn’t, ordinarily, be turning on the taps much at this hour. I clean up in the morning and at the beginning of the evening, and tonight I was careful to make dinner in plenty of time for the dishwasher to run its cycle before the shut-off. I filled two three-gallon watering  cans, for toilet emergencies that are unlikely to occur. I filled two litre carafes for drinking water, along with my own nightly water bottle. I filled a large casserole to the brim, for dipping fingers that probably won’t get dirty. You could say that I wasted a lot of water. I’m set. And yet.

Because the cloud of theoretical deprivation hung over the afternoon, I did not try to do anything involving words, aside from venturing a few paragraphs about Waiting for Godot. Instead, I marshalled shopping bags lying here and there in the apartment. Stop right there! you cry, and stop I shall. Progress was made, to really a rather surprising degree. Still, the foyer looks worse than ever. I thought I said “Stop!” The intermediate phases of progress (think of open-heart surgery!) are often unattractive.

We are planning a quiet weekend. We may have a meal with an old friend, but then again we may not. Tomorrow night, we’ve got a chamber recital at the Museum. In the morning, I’m going to meet Quatorze for the first showing of The Limits of Control, the new Jim Jarmusch movie. That’s about the best thing going at the moment, except for The Soloist, which I’ve promised to see with Kathleen. If it’s dismal on Sunday morning, and we haven’t already been, I’m going to insist on seeing The Soloist early, while I’m still alert. We saw Duplicity at a late showing two weeks ago, and if I haven’t written it up, that’s because it was too complex for the hour. All those time frames!

All of a sudden, it’s May! We’re deep into the second quarter of the year, which will soon be half over. I’m gathering rosebuds — don’t worry! — while I may. Actually, I’ve been gathering peony petals, fallen drifts of which made for the kind of poetic living-room disarray that does not photograph well. Kathleen ordered eight peonies blooms from an Internet outlet last week. They arrived as tight little balls of pink on beautiful stems — peony stems are the most handsome in nature, I think — and within days they opened up to be humongous blossoms, as trans-rosaceously blowsy as you please, paling by the hour until you wouldn’t have known that they’d been pink at all if you hadn’t seen the peonies when they arrived. You’ll pardon my saying so, but the gonads were gorgeous. Is that the word? The repro parts. Totally Jeff Koons. Another shipment is supposed to arrive tomorrow, and that will be it for the Yorkville Peony Festival of 2009.  

I can’t resist.

Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose,
or on the wealth of globèd peonies…

I wonder what Keats thought of peonies that had popped. Truth to tell, I wonder what he knew about peonies at all, Cockney chemist that he was.

(Quoting poems that you memorized forty years ago is much less stressful when there’s the Internet to check afterward. I had “the morning rose” and “a wealth.” I tell you this pour encourager les autres.)

My hand is ever at the tap — but not tonight.

Daily Office: Thursday

Thursday, April 30th, 2009


¶ Matins: Why conservatives ought to promote transit alternatives to cars — and why they don’t; all spelled out in a lucid essay by David Schaengold, of the Witherspoon Institute (in, but not of, Princeton). “Public transit and walkable neighborhoods are necessary for the creation of a country where families and communities can flourish.”

¶ Lauds: This is the only movie that I want to see right now: Julie & Julia. The trailer is as good as a soufflé.

¶ Prime: Father Tony interviews Andrew Holleran. Imagine that!

¶ Tierce: What a lot of colorful business news there is this morning! Kenneth Lewis is no longer  chief at Bank of America. AIG — now AIU, actually — continues to look for a nicer name. Clear Channel Communications, the media hog, faces “mounting debt payments.” (Yay!) Starbucks isn’t losing money — yet (but can that be a suit and tie that Howard Schultz is wearing?). And, as for Chrysler…

¶ Sext: “What does this thing do?” Danny Gregory’s guide for the perplexed SkyMall visitor.

¶ Nones: Now, here’s a peace initiative to watch: “Kenyan women hit men with sex ban.”

¶ Vespers: Christopher Buckley’s memoir of his parents, Losing Mum and Pup, sounds like just the thing to read in St Croix at Thanksgiving. Something to look forward to.

¶ Compline: Would you be influenced by a “livability index” in deciding where to settle down? If you think you’re too old for that decision, when did that happen? And would you advise the young ‘uns in your life to “choose wisely”?

¶ Bon weekend à tous!


Morning Read: Indications of Futility

Thursday, April 30th, 2009


¶ Lord Chesterfield sends his son a miscellany of rules for good conduct, all of which touch, in one way or another, upon the matter of impulse control.

Horse-play, romping, frequent and loud fits of laughter, jokes, waggery, and indiscriminate familiarity, will sink both merit and knowledge into a degree of contempt.

A certain degree of exterior seriousness in looks and motions gives dignity, without excluding with and decent cheerfulness, which are always serious themselves. A constant smirk upon the face, and a whiffling activity of the body, are among the indications of futility. Whoever is in a hurry, shows that the thing he is about is too big for him. Haste and hurry are very different things.

¶ In Squillions, Noël Coward endures a string of duds but finds paradise in Jamaica, where neighbors include Ivor Novello. A bit of dish:

Ivor, with typical Welsh cunning, has almost achieved the impossible, which is to find in Jamaica a house with no view at all. It is a suburban villa with several tiled bathrooms (but a scarcity of water) furnished in flowered chintz and mock mahogany. You can see the sea, which is three miles away, by standing on the dining-room table. Any mountain vista is successfully obscured bfy a high hedge beloning to the people next door.

¶ It must come from reading the books out of order, but the following extract from Moby-Dick sounds rather more like Coward than Melville.

In cavalier attendance upon the school of females, you invariably see a male of full grown magnitude, but not old; who, upon any alarm, evinces his gallantry by falling in the rear and covering the flight of his ladies. In truth, this gentleman is a luxurious Ottoman, swimming about over the watery world, surroundingly accompaniesd by all the solace and endearments of the harem. The contrast between this Ottoman and his concubines is striking; because, while he is always of the largest leviathanic proportions, the ladies, even at full growth, are not much more than one third of the bulk of an average-sized male. They are comparatively delicate, indeed; I dare say, not to exceed half a dozen yards round the waist. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied, that upon the whole they are hereditarily entitled to en bon point.

Dear Diary: Rad

Wednesday, April 29th, 2009


The net-net of my planned day of radical housekeeping was, in fact, radical: I decided to throw away the Times every day. No more holding on to yesterday’s paper in case somebody tips me off to an interesting story.

With no small irony, it has dawned on me that I spend a great deal of time in these latter days trying to unlearn patterns carefully developed long ago, under different conditions and with very different objectives. It has been months since I last clipped an article from the Times. If anyone tipped me off to an interesting story, I’d head straight for the newspaper’s digital edition. I was holding on to the print edition out of unthinking habit. Unlearning an unthinking habit ought to be easier than it is.

I did get a lot of stuff done, but nowhere near as much as I’d breezily imagined. No blame! — as the I Ching counsels. Life at the intersection of two opposed curves requires a habit of resignation. On the one hand, I’m getting older, and everything just takes longer. (Quite aside from the mortal fact of physical deterioration, there is the brute fact that “everything,” for someone sixtyish, is vast in comparison to a twentysomething’s universe. There’s simply so much more stuff!)

On the other hand — the opposing curve — I’ve never  been nearly as engaged with the world as I am now. However ragged the Daily Office offerings might be, assembling them requires a discipline that’s altogether new to me, and the side effects are almost as jarring as those of adolescence. They may be intellectual rather than carnal, but they leave me with the same sublime smirk that ripples across Michael Berg’s face when, seated with his family at dinner, he can’t believe that his body isn’t broadcasting news of his erotic afternoon with Hanna Schmitz. (The Reader.) My brain believes that it’s eighteen, and acing all the AP tests.

About time, you might say.

Daily Office: Wednesday

Wednesday, April 29th, 2009


¶ Matins: The only thing that’s missing from this Observer story about a houseguest from hell is the atmosphere that Quatorze would exhale if he were reading it.

¶ Lauds: Here’s a story that ought to be curdling my innards, but the innards in question were curdled so long ago that there’s nothing left. The Times may sell WQXR, according to the kind of rumors that have been panning out lately.

¶ Prime: Even though I have NO ROOM, I must confess to being beguiled by Mike Johnston’s Online Photographer entry about starting a camera collection.

¶ Tierce: Olympia Snowe’s envoi to Arlen Specter manages to make Ronald Reagan, of all people, sound like a moderate Republican. The Pennsylvania senator’s defection to the Democrats may also lubricate his former party’s easing-up on opposition to same-sex marriage.

¶ Sext: And, speaking of marriage, The Morning News assembles a Panel of Experts, comprising a handful of youngsters who are engaged to be married, “The Rules of Engagement.”

¶ Nones: First, the good news: things are looking up (a little) in Myanmar, a nation so devastated by Cyclone Nargis, last year, that its repressive junta loosened up a bit.

¶ Vespers: Finally: a book by Colson Whitehead that I’d like to read. None of that postmodern bricolage, just a straightforward summer novel: Sag Harbor. Marie Mockett inverviews the author at Maud Newton.

¶ Compline: One of the most egotistical, testosterone-driven, and commercially senseless mergers in corporate history is about to be undone, as TimeWarner and America Online approach the dissolution of their relationship.


Reading Note: Hormone

Wednesday, April 29th, 2009


“The Slows,” Gail Hareven’s story in this week’s New Yorker (translated from the Hebrew by Yaacov Jeffrey Green) is not the sort of thing that I have much to say about. Although perfectly well-executed, the story is a science-fiction parable, and therefore not about anybody you or I know. Take the narrator, for example. The narrator has had a very unusual childhood — no childhood at all, really. Thanks to a growth hormone that is now routinely administered to most human newborns, he reached adulthood in the space of a few weeks after birth. While interesting in a back-of-the-envelope way, Ms Hareven’s construct presumes that recognizable human beings — recognizable to us — could reach maturity without the prolonged post-partum gestation that stocks a growing mind with twelve years of passive experience. I don’t buy it for a minute.

The Slows, of course, are dissident human beings who have resisted the hormone. They’ve been increasingly marginalized, and now they are about to be eliminated altogether. No one will die, posssibly; but no one will retain the right to allow an infant to take its time growing up. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, we can’t of course say, but in the meantime we can discern parallels to the oppression/extinction of Native Americans (on both New World continents), and we can wonder if the author wants us to think about Palestinians.

In my book, to the extent that a story is “thought-provoking” — and “The Slows” is certainly that — it cannot be good adult fiction. Only last week, The New Yorker published a story, “Vast Hell,” of incomparably deeper political significance, but the significance is rich because it cannot be reduced to a political decision. In “Vast Hell,” townsmen discover some graves of “the disappeared,” victims of a very bad spell in Argentinian history. The story is about the townsmen, however, and not about the desaparecidos. Guillermo Martínez’s fiction does not teach the reader anything; rather, it kindles a host of synesthetic responses in the mind that recreate, to the extent that the reader is attentive and imaginative, the complexity of making a ghastly discovery that one had been dead set on not making.

“The Slows” is an excellent story for younger readers who are beginning to learn not to read literally: it will kindle outrage. I mean that in earnest and without snark of any kind. There is nothing concealed in my conviction that science fiction has no place in The New Yorker — or in any magazine that I read regularly.

Dear Diary: Bookishly Unproductive

Tuesday, April 28th, 2009


It was the sort of unproductive day that makes me crazy — usually. Not today, though. There were mitigating circumstances.

For one thing, Vestal McIntyre’s reading at McNally Jackson. I’ve talked enough, perhaps, about Vestal’s new book, and I’ll be writing it up soon. So I’ll just say that I attended in happy spirits. The usual crowd — usual in that it consisted of friends of the author who might never, or only rarely, have set foot in McNally Jackson before — chatted away with itself, but I did not, for a change, feel left out. Okay, forget the gross libel about “the usual crowd.” But it didn’t matter. If the audience at the reading consisted of two groups — (a) cool young literary folk and elders lucky enough to know them and (b) me — that was okay.

And here’s why: I’d had a call, shortly before I left for NoLIta, from a John Doyle, the book dealer whom I mentioned the other day. He offered me a very reasonable figure for the first edition (more or less) of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time (12 vols) that an old friend, who already had her own set, had just inherited from her brother — and that she gave to me about a month ago. Gave to me! Such astounding generosity! Mr Doyle’s check will be made out in her name.

It’s the second-set aspect of the thing that emboldened me to investigate liquidation. If there were only one set, it would have to be kept. If my friend didn’t want to keep it, then I should have to do so. But there were two! Two virtually identical sets. It turned out that the only really valuable volume was the third, The Acceptance World. Here’s why: the Heinemann print runs for the first three volumes was rather small. Kindling interest in Powell’s project took both faith and time. My friend and her brother missed out on the first two volumes, buying later printings (they look just the same as the originals) of the first two but catching on by The Acceptance World. When At Lady Molly’s was ready for publication, Heinemann printed a bigger run, and none of the latter nine volumes of Dance is as rare as any of the first three. (To see the pretty covers, scroll down.)

I’m so tickled, I could dance the polka — said Mr Wag like a bear.

Daily Office: Tuesday

Tuesday, April 28th, 2009


¶ Matins: Ryan Avent, at Portfolio, is “amazed”:

The truly amazing thing to me is that parental income isn’t just crucial in getting to college, and getting through college — its effects linger on, basically, in perpetuity. One of the most remarkable findings from the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Economic Mobility Project is that a child from a family in the top income quintile who does not get a college degree is more likely to wind up in the top income quintile himself than a child from a family in the bottom income quintile who does get a college degree.

¶ Lauds: Krystian Zimerman read the riot act at Disney on Sunday night. In light of yesterday’s Lauds, you won’t be surprised to hear that I disapprove.

¶ Prime: At Sore Afraid, Eric undergoes laser eye  surgery; has “crispness” issues, but jogs in Central Park and tootles off to Washington just the same.

We had reservations for an activity at the International Spy Museum, but Asaph started feeling unwell, probably from dehydration, but things weren’t helped when he was bitten by a large fly. I tried to reassure him, but I am not so good at that.

¶ Tierce: An exciting, ultimately frustrating story about “cyberwarfare” in the Times  boils down to “be very afraid” boilerplate. The Economist, however, counsels a more cynically relaxed response.

¶ Sext: It’s a living — or is it? A pair of entrepreneurial Pakistani brothers may relocate to East Asia if their prosperous bondage-gear business gets too hot to handle in Karachi.

¶ Nones: Just in case you think that things are bad here in the USA, consider the Balkan States: Lithuania’s economy dropped by 12% from the same quarter last year. That’s an almost unimaginable contraction in terms of everyday business.

¶ Vespers: The return of the British thriller: the Curzon Group (currently comprising three crime writers) intends to restore the lustre of a genre that, in its eyes, has been tarnished by American “production line” methods. (via Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind)

¶ Compline: Along with indoor plumbing, a hallmark of modern civilization at its most basic is street lighting: we take the safety that it provides for granted. But streetlights are in need of a rethink, not least because powering them comes to two percent of our total energy consumption.


Dear Diary: Miam

Monday, April 27th, 2009


As Mondays go, it was a good day. I never left the building, but that’s to be expected when I’ve had a busy weekend. I meant to plant the flats of pansies and geraniums that I bought at Nicky’s last week, but then I meant to do a lot of householdy things. It’s easy to plan dutiful afternoons in the morning. The difficulty comes at lunchtime, which is invariably spent over a book. Usually, I can close the book and get back to work, but not today. Today, I just changed places, from the upright seat at the writing table in the bedroom, where I ate lunch, to the reading chair just opposite. I simply didn’t want to put Vestal McIntyre’s Lake Overturn down.

I read a lot of good books. Even though I’m probably working a smallish corner of the contemporary literary-novel scene, the books that I like have little in common with each other. Let me pluck a few titles from the air: The Corrections, Telex From Cuba, Then We Came to the End, Netherland, The Great Man, Breakable You (these two latter titles do have something in common, actually). Let’s not forget the stupidly underrated Lulu in Marrakech. (Must write that one up!) Now, Lake Overturn.

I loved Mr McIntyre’s collection of eight magnificent stories, You Are Not The One. I’ll admit that I liked the New York stories a bit more than the Idaho stories, but that’s because I’m a hick. When I heard that the author’s first novel would be set in his native state, I pouted. I really did! A bit of personal history that was published in an issue of Open City last year, although very well done, threw me into a state of verdinemia, the malady caused by a shortage of greenery. (Southern Idaho is very dry.) But Lake Overturn is so rich in human complication that I never had a moment to register the rebarbative environment, which, in any case, the locals seemed to be perfectly happy with.

Sometimes novels make me want to visit places that weren’t on my list. Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games — a title that I ought to have mentioned earlier — made me want to visit Mumbai, which is the last thing that I’d have expected. Lake Overturn has not kindled a desire to visit the greater Boise metroplex, where the novel is set, but Mr McIntyre’s prose has ignited a passionate indignation. All that terrific praise for Updike, Roth & al that I’ve been reading for decades and that I have always found overheated: it’s true of this young writer’s work. The only writer of my age who seems comparably gifted is Richard Ford.

So much for the blah-blah-blah part of my criticism of Lake Overturn. Now I’ve got to hunker down and find a few substantive things to say about it. Mr McIntyre has done his share of the hard work; now it’s my turn.

Let me just say that I’ve already forgiven Kate Christensen for her blurbatorial comparison of Lake Overturn to Middlemarch. It’s a lot smarter, as these comparisons go, than the one between Netherland and The Great Gatsby. Whereas I have no interest in conjecturing Fitzgerald’s response to Joseph O’Neill’s (even more that Fitzgerald’s) understated masterpiece, I am fairly certain that George Eliot would have turned the pages of Lake Overturn with as much interest as I did.

Daily Office: Monday

Monday, April 27th, 2009


¶ Matins: Robert Pear’s story about the latest squabble in health care reform is well worth thinking about. “Doctor Shortage Proves Obstacle to Obama Goals” is the title of his story, but I’m afraid that the editor who came up with it was having a senior moment, even if he’s only twenty-six.

¶ Lauds: Norman Lebrecht inveighs against artists who collaborate with nasty regimes — creative types who go along to get along. I couldn’t disagree more with his conclusion, but I recognize that he has, by far, the easier argument.

¶ Prime: Manfred Ertel’s Spiegel story about the recknoning in Reykjavik will make deeply satisfying reading to anyone who, like me, believes that the past fifteen years’ free market follies betray a pre-adolescent want of perspicuity. Having the gals take over so that they can fix things seems only right. But what about the reaction?

¶ Tierce: For some reason, I thought that Texas could subdivide into six entities, not five — but I do remember (from my Houstonian captivity) that subdivision was a standard plank in gubernatorial platforms until 1920.  

¶ Sext: In his search for bizarre LP album covers, Muscato unearths the even more bizarre optimism of LP consumers back in the days when new technologies promised to deliver information not only more palatably but more effectively than conventional media (ie books).

¶ Nones: Two stories about Hungary at risk in the ongoing slump. First, and very predicatable, violence aimed at Roma (gypsies). Second, and more impressionistic, Budapest’s fragile prosperity, considered by someone just old enough to remember the city in 1989.

¶ Vespers: A faux-anxious story, nominally about Kazuo Ishiguro’s having only so many more book projects in his quiver, alerts us to the impending arrival (in the UK, anyway) of a new book — not a novel.

¶ Compline: Erik Hare’s essay on seizing opportunity, on being ready to take advantage of favorable winds when they blow — and on the tendency of liberals to dismiss such a skill as “opportunism” — makes for thought-provoking reading. “Eyes on the Prize,” at Barataria.


Morning Read: Miranda

Monday, April 27th, 2009


¶ In Don Quixote, the three chapters comprising our hero’s gracious encounter with Don Diego de Miranda (whom Quixote regards as The Knight of the Green Coat) seem to be written in a new and different tone; I could not beat down the sensation that Don Diego was my contemporary, not Quixote’s, and that the episode, which culminates in a very agreeable and comfortable visit to Don Diego’s manor, was taking place in modern Texas. Quixote’s encouragement to Don Lorenzo, his host’s son, to persevere in his pursuit of poetry reads something like a blog entry offering career advice. It must be something I ate.

And then there is the adventure of the lazy lion, which reads like a Monty Python skit.

Then the lion keeper, in great detail and with many pauses, recounted the outcome of the contest, exaggerating to the best of his ability and skill the valor of Don Quixote, the sight of whom made a coward of the lion, and refused and did not dare to leave his cage, although he had kept the door open for some time; and only because he had told the knight that it was tempting God to provoke the lion and force him come out, which is what he wanted him to do, and despite the knight’s wishes and against his will, he had allowed the door to be closed again.

“What do you think of that, Sancho?” said Don Quixote. “Are there any enchantments that can prevail against true courage? Enchanters only deprive me of good fortune, but of spirit and courage, never!”

In this second part of the epic, Cervantes certainly treats enchantment as a blank check on which to draw from a vast bank account.

Weekend Update (Sunday Edition): Leon of Venice

Sunday, April 26th, 2009


On Friday evening, both Kathleen and I went over to the Upper West Side branch of Barnes & Noble to be on hand when Donna Leon appeared. Kathleen’s manifest interest ought to be all the recommendation that you need to start reading Ms Leon’s Commissario Brunetti novels. They were recommended by one of Kathleen’s clients well over ten years ago, but, having passed the tip on to me, Kathleen didn’t look into the books herself until quite recently, whereupon she became a big fan.

The place was packed. It was clear that Ms Leon’s readership had made the logarithmic jump between 82nd Street and Union Square. True, everyone was older than we were, or nearly. But if Ms Leon has younger fans, you can’t expect them to let themselves be caught dead on the Upper West Side on a Friday night. It was wonderfully idiotic of B & N to pipe an invitation to the reading through the store not once but twice after the event space became almost too crowded for safety. The events manageress did come up with an ingenious idea for getting rid of people: she warned us that a German television team would be filming the event. Anyone who didn’t want to be caught on German television ought, therefore, to leave. Once upon a time, a clutch of principled Upper West Siders would have marched out. But that was our parents’ generation.

For those of you who thirst for information about the Leon of Venice, I report the following items:

  • Signorina Elettra is based on Roberta’s aunt. And she gets her name from the aunt’s mother. Something like that. The aunt was working for an executive of the Banco d’Italia’s Venice branch during the period of South African proscription. One day, when her boss asked her to take a letter to a banker in J’burg, the aunt “declined.” To the apoplectic banker she sliced the air with her hands. “I am going to leave now, and have a cup of coffee. You can organize your thoughts, and, when I return, we will do something else.” When Ms Leon heard this story, she knew she had the right secretary for Vice-Questore Patta.
  • There will be a Paola Brunetti cookbook. It will appear in German later this year and in English in 2010. The recipes will be written by Ms Leon’s best friend, Roberta, who has served not only as Ms Leon’s reason for being in Venice (“I’d have settled wherever she and Franco” — Roberta’s husband — “lived”) but also as the inspiration for Paola’s quite fantastic lunchtime menus.
  • Ms Leon recently took four meetings in London with prospective producers of Brunetti videos. She has a favorite — which means that she has no objection to adapting her novels for the screen (and why would she, since the whole Brunetti business supports her true love, Il complesso barocco, an opera company noted for its Handel recordings, which, if you are a Brunetti fan, you will buy).
  • The Teatro la Fenice mounts operas about thirty nights in the year. The Spoleto Festival doesn’t pay its bills — claiming that everybody performs pro bono. For these reasons, Ms Leon’s opera company does not work in Italy.
  • Translations of the Brunetti books into Italian remain unauthorized. Ms Leon is, quite rightly, I think, convinced that Italian-language readers (as distinct from Italian readers of German or English) would devote themselves to pointing out that she understands nothing of life in Venice — not really.
  • Like Paola, Ms Leon is a smartass. At a Fourth of July party on the Grand Canal, given by a rich American woman, with the kind of guests that rich American women attract, someone who couldn’t remember Ezra Pound’s name asked, “Who was that crazy old guy who supported the fascists?” As if compelled by Tourette’s, Ms Leon replied, “Ronald Reagan.”

Weekend Open Thread: Butts

Saturday, April 25th, 2009


Weekend Update (Friday Edition): Juggling

Friday, April 24th, 2009


The handymen were here this morning to change the filters on the HVAC units. (I think that that stands for “heating, ventilating, air-conditioning.”) The units are positioned beneath the windows, naturally. So is a lot of furniture, and a great deal of terrifying wiring. The wiring is all mine, but I can’t summon the courage to clean it up.

Certainly not today, when I can hardly see straight. M le Neveu, who is in town this weekend, dropped by last night to pick something up, and I looked so tired that he nicely asked if he could grate the block of cheddar that I had set out for macaroni & cheese. No, I thanked him; grating cheese would keep me standing. I might slip into a coma otherwise.

In any case, I had to stay home and move the furniture for the handymen; so, no Friday movie. I went ahead and did my Saturday cleaning, which made all the more sense in view of tomorrow afternoon’s schedule: I’ll be taking some friends on a tour of the Museum. In the evening, we’ve got Waiting for Godot. D’you remember that National Lampoon Radio hour parody in which a bus pulls up and Godot gets off? “Hi, guys…” I don’t think that we’ll be seeing that version.

The Week at Portico: This week’s four new pages: ¶ Yiyun Li’s quietly remarkable novel, The Vagrants. The more I read about modern China (the novel is set in 1979), the better I understand Beijing’s prickly attitude toward Western misunderstandings. ¶ Christopher Hampton’s 1970 comedy, The Philanthropist, with Matthew Broderick, is packing them in at the American Airlines Theatre. The revival had me daydreaming about Alan Bennett. ¶ Faubourg 36 (marketed here, idiotically, as Paris 36) is the first live-action film to command the uncluttered grace of comic books, and as such it opens a world of new possibilities to the movie musical. ¶ This week’s Book Review review — they ought to have put Animal Spirits, by George Akerlof and Robert Shiller, on the cover.

Dear Diary: TMI

Thursday, April 23rd, 2009


The whole day was TMI, so I have nothing to report. Either TMI or BAU. You don’t see BAU much — “business as usual” — and I wonder why (Fossil will tell me). Anyway, the day did not involve (a) laparoscopy, (b) incarceration, or (c) athlete’s foot. Athlete’s foot is close, though, so now you know why you want me to zip it.

The BAU part was good, but shop talk would be awfully meta at a Web log, don’t you agree? I wrote this and that. I played FreeCell hand #17985 about forty times, until I finally got it. I made macaroni and cheese for dinner: Kathleen came home before midnight for a change. A funny thing happened on the way to the vinaigrette.

I laundered the towels. I got a haircut. I launder the towels because the wash-and-fold service in the building cannot be persuaded to withhold fabric softener, the purpose of which (in NYC, where the water is already soft) I have yet to grasp. I got a haircut even though Willy, the barber, is on home leave in Peru. When Willy is here, the music in the barbershop is rigorously Peruvian. (Juan Diego Flores qualifies.) Today, the music was Brazilian, which is not only not Peruvian but Portuguese. The relief barber was aged 27 tops, but he did a very good job. He manicured the hairline below my ear so attentively that all I could think of was an Armani shoot.

While waiting for my turn at the barbershop, I read Vestal McIntyre’s unstoppable new novel, Lake Overturn. I have met the author a couple of times, and he is diffidence itself; but he writes as if he keeps the books for Satan. I used to think that the worst that could happen would be winding up in Hell forever, but now I know that it would be immortalization in Vestal McIntyre’s pages. It’s not that the writer is unkind to his characters — not at all. He’s just — accurate.

Which, coming from me, would be TMI; but he makes it fascinating.

Daily Office: Thursday

Thursday, April 23rd, 2009


¶ Matins: Your weekend piece: Franklin Foer on governance by nudges: leave the market alone, but manipulate participants’ incentives.

¶ Lauds: Which do you prefer? Richard Rogers’s modernist assemblage for the Chelsea Barracks site in London, or Quinlan Terry’s, which the Prince of Wales has explicitly preferred. (via  Things Magazine)

¶ Prime: Another weekend piece: David’s Smashing Telly! reflections on Susan Boyle, the Great Depression, “the illusion of the benign long tail,” and Sasha Baron Chomsky.

¶ Tierce: In record numbers, Americans are staying put. I’m not sure, though, that I agree with the drift of this headline: “Slump Creates Lack of Mobility for Americans.”

¶ Sext: As a well-known curmudgeon, I will surprise no one by calling for a ticker-tape parade in honor of Madlyn Primoff.

¶ Nones: Reading about the “existential” threat faced by Pakistan, as Taliban forces occupy ever more territory and eject the legitimate state apparatus, I hope that somebody somewhere is developing an efffective means of response. Conventional military reaction to the Taliban has never worked in the long run.

¶ Vespers: Garth Risk Hallberg, at The Millions, kicks off a series of pieces about “The Future of Book Coverage: R I P, N Y T?” He goes back two years, to the closing of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s book supplement — a “disaster” that now makes sense.

¶ Compline: Do you think that President Obama ought to meet with the Dalai Lama, considering how insulting that will be to the Chinese government?

¶ Bon weekend à tous!


Dear Diary: Guilty Giggling

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2009


Proof that I am an unbridled hedonist glared forth today in the wake of a comment posted at Facebook. I won’t multiply my sin by repeating it here; nor, however, will I beat my breast or rend my garments. When I told a few old friends what I’d done, their dark, low laughter — more throat-clearing hum than actual risication — made me sure that I’d been bad. But it took hours to stop giggling. (more…)

Daily Office: Wednesday

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2009


¶ Matins: In what is certainly the most important piece of intellectual psychology that I have seen this decade, Tom Jacobs writes up Jonathan Haidt’s research into moral psychology. A must-read, the article is compulsively readable.

¶ Lauds: Say “cheese!” Conceptual artist Filippo Panseca trowels on the fontina for his startlingly high-tack painting of — who? I don’t remember reading about this scene in Edith Hamilton. (Via  Arts Journal)

¶ Prime: There’s a great cartoon in this week’s New Yorker (okay, drawing). A financial adviser tells his clients that what they ought to do is use a time machine to travel back sixteen months and convert to cash. In case you’re going back further than that, this poster from Topatoco may come in handy.

¶ Tierce: The Rattner imbroglio will probably reprise the chorus of complaints about President Obama’s personnel picks for economic recovery: all too often, they look like the “wizards” behind last year’s financial meltdown. 

¶ Sext: Freshman Composition in the Age of Tweets: “I Can Haz Writin Skillz?” (via

¶ Nones: Christopher Hitchens fulminates about Turkey at Slate, and takes France’s diplomatic kick-turning rather too piously. “Ankara Shows Its Hand.”  (via  The Morning News)

¶ Vespers: Will somebody please tell me why Dwight Garner, and not Janet Maslin, reviewed the new book about (not by) Helen Gurley Brown? A man instead of a woman?

¶ Compline: Hats off to Ben Jervey, a committed environmentalist who hates Earth Day.


Reading Notes: Desaparecido

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2009


This week’s story in The New Yorker, Guillermo Martínez’s unassuming but extraordinary “Vast Hell” (translated by Albert Manguel), takes its title from an Argentine proverb, printed as an epigram: “A small town is a vast hell.” It doesn’t take much imagination to comprehend the proverb; for most people in history, small towns have been inescapable reservoirs of unforgotten crimes and misdemeanors. Judgment is eternally ongoing, salvation not to be had on this earth.

Mr Martínez has set his story in a small, presumably fictional, Argentinian town, situated beside the sea, but the locals’ attention is focused on outsiders, as it will be when outsiders intrude. And Mr Martínez focuses on the attention, not on its object. We never really know what the barber’s wife, known as “the French Woman,” and the scruffy young hitchhiker got up to in the boy’s tent not far from the widow Espinosa’s house. We hear plenty of the widow’s outrage at the lovers’ trysts, and even more about her conviction that only foul play can explain their disappearance.

The disappearances register in what will turn out to be a telling way.

One day, we realized that the boy and the French Woman had disappeared. I mean, the boy didn’t seem to be around anymore, and no one had seen the French Woman, either in the barbershop or on the pathway down to the beach, where she liked to go for walks. The first thing we all thought was that they’d run away together, and, maybe because running away always has a romantic ring to it, or because the dangerous temptress was now out of reach, the women seemed willing to forgive the French Woman for this. It was obvious that there was someting wrong in that marriage, they’d say. Cerviño was too old for her, and also the boy was very handsome. … And with secretive giggles they’d confess that maybe they would have done the same.

But the widow won’t have it: she’s convinced that Cerviño murdered the lovers.

In the meantime, Espinosa’s widow seemed to have gone out of her mind. She went about digging holes everywhere, armed with a ridiculous child’s shovel, hollering at the top of her voice that she wouldn’t rest until she found the bodies.

And one day she found them.

She found bodies, that is. When we have finished the story — when, perhaps, we have read it a second time (“Vast Hell” is not long), we savor Mr Martínez’s meditation on curiosity. Another widow might have attacked the dunes in search of very different bodies, but far from enlisting the local inspector’s help in finding them, she would have joined them instead — as indeed does a little dog, who, like Espinosa’s widow, can’t let go. Crime passionel is one thing; political atrocity quite another.

Before heading back to town, he ordered us not to speak to anyone about what we had seen, and jotted down, one by one, the names of all who had been there.

Perhaps when we re-read the opening sentence —

Often, when the grocery story is empty and all you can hear is the buzzing of flies, I think of that young man whose name we never knew and whom no one in town ever mentioned again.

— what we hear is the silence of unmarked graves.

Dear Diary: Freezer

Tuesday, April 21st, 2009


Another housebound day. The sun came out between five and six, but by then it was too late to run errands. Tomorrow, I thought. Tomorrow will be nice. But — (more…)