Archive for February, 2011

Daily Office: Vespers
“Beautiful, Witty, Rarefied Fun”
Monday, 28 February 2011

Monday, February 28th, 2011

Julie Bosman follows Paris Review editor and Grub Street sex symbol Lorin Stein on a literary debauch.

Money is a running concern. His own salary, around $150,000, is generous by literary-world standards. The magazine’s occasional fund-raisers, subscriber dollars, newsstand sales and private donations provide enough money to cover costs, and an endowment has been untouched since 2006. But Mr. Stein is under pressure not only to raise the magazine’s profile, but to lure more paying customers, relentlessly promote it and its writers, and dream up new ways of getting attention.

Sometimes, that means asking for favors from famous writer friends. At the Harper’s party, he spotted Ms. Smith, looking tall and elegant with her hair swept back.

Mr. Stein pounced. “You and Nick,” he said, referring to her husband, the writer Nick Laird. “I want you to be my guests at the magazine gala.”

She looked skeptical. “So you want my money?”

“No, we want to pimp the two of you,” he said. “You’ll have so much fun. We’ll pay for the baby sitter.”

Oscar 2011; Just Go With It

Monday, February 28th, 2011

Of the ten movies nominated for Best Picture Oscars, I’d seen nine — all but Toy Story 3  (which I’m sure that I’ll enjoy on DVD at some point) — in the course of last year’s moviegoing. I’d like all of them — not equally, certainly; but without having any standout favorites. The Social Network turned out to be one of those movies that packs its greatest wallop the first time you see it. The King’s Speech bemused me — or, rather, its popularity did. It’s a perfectly nice movie, with a stringingly honed performance by Helena Bonham Carter; otherwise, it’s pretty much all uplift, and a mousy-looking uplift at that. (I have never seen so much brown; even the green trees in the park scene seemed brown.) The Fighter surprised me, given the almost complete lack of sympathy that I have for its milieux (and my disapproval of attempts at glorifying same): not only was I wholly engaged by the drama of the piece, but the boxing was actually interesting to watch!

I could go on. I’m happy enough that Colin Firth won Best Actor, because he deserved it for A Single Man. But my passions ran low at this year’s Oscar awards because two movies that I liked very much were out of the running. True, Jeremy Renner was nominated for his supporting role in The Town, and you can’t expect Hollywood to reverse course on Ben Affleck on the strength of one movie. But the other movie I more than liked. To my mind, it was easily the best picture of the year: Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer.

If there was a more thrilling movie in 2011, I didn’t see it and I never heard of it, either. The Ghost Writer shows Polanski at his most disciplined; if anything, the first viewing is likely to be underwhelming, at least until the final ten minutes or so. It’s when you know what’s going to happen that movies like this open up and swallow you. The first time, you don’t know what’s going on any more than does the poor hero, played with an almost businesslike understatement by the typically flamboyant Ewan McGregor. The second time. you know a little more: you know how the movie ends. It’s only with the third viewing that you begin to see how it’s done — especially by the witchily engrossing ladies in the cast, Olivia Williams and Kim Cattrall. When The Ghost Writer came out on DVD, I slipped it into my kitchen apparatus and watched it, stopping and starting, about twenty times. I stopped only when prudence warned that one more viewing might make me stick and unable to watch it again.

One guess as to why The Ghost Writer received no nominations.


Just Go With It will not be nominated for an Oscar, although it may be mentioned in some late-in-life accolade of Nicole Kidman’s career. Did you know that Nicole Kidman is in Just Go With It? I didn’t. At first, when the comely redhead waved across the beach to Jennifer Aniston, I thought that Christina Hendricks had landed a nice little part in an Adam Sandler vehicle. But as the figure approached, she grew taller and slimmer — and taller. What were the odds, I wondered, of finding a Nicole-Kidman look-a-like who’s as tall as Nicole Kidman? I couldn’t let the question go, because what was Nicole Kidman doing in this movie? Having fun, you could say. Playing a brittle and competitive sorority sister, Kidman makes Aniston look as soft and cuddly as Audrey Hepburn.

Which is all the more interesting because it’s the other Hepburn that Aniston calls to mind. Despite a relenteless blizzard of sophomoric crudities, Just Go With It is a genuine screwball comedy with a romantic drift that’s not unlike that of Bringing Up Baby. The guy’s in a jam; the gal tries to help him out but only makes things worse. One is not altogether startled when it turns out that the gal wants the guy for herself. All right; I exaggerate. There is nothing ditzy about Jennifer Aniston’s Katherine. She may be a little bit exhausted, what with raising two high-concept children on her own while serving as nurse/office assistant to Danny, a  Beverly Hills plastic surgeon (Adam Sandler). But she makes up for the missing looniness with her trademark ability to make herself over, going from Plain Jane to Impossible Dream, with movie-star ease.

In a way that’s the-same-as-but-opposite-to Irene Dunne’s role in The Awful Truth, Katherine transforms herself from a pleasant woman to a terrifying bacchante, but in Just Go With It the metamorphosis comes much earlier. For reasons too ridiculous to go into here, Danny needs Katherine to impersonate the wife whom he is in the process of divorcing — a person who does not in reality exist. Once Katherine has socked Danny for the price of plausible threads from Rodeo Drive boutiques, she shows up for drinks with Danny and the girl whom he wants to marry (and who wants to be sure that he’s getting unmarried) bathed in the aura of killer glamour that she brought to her bad-girl role in Derailed. And that’s just what she looks like. The minute she sits down, she aims a fusillade of belittlements at Danny that would be unpleasant if it didn’t underline the already established fact that Katherine and Danny (who loses no time giving tit for tat) like being together. 

It quickly becomes obvious that Katherine is a lot more interesting to Danny than his girlfriend Palmer (Brooklyn Decker) is. Just Go With It probably wouldn’t have anywhere to go, in fact, if it were blandly formulaic instead of racketingly miscellaneous. From among the abundant choices, I will point to Nick Swarsdon’s encounter with the sheep — does administering the Heimlich Maneuver to animals constitute bestiality? — as a scene that does not really belong in this movie,  or that wouldn’t belong if there weren’t so many others like it. And we must hope that young Bailee Madison will live down her flourishing cockney accent. In any case, these distractions are there to be enjoyed on a kind of dare. Don’t stay away for fear of them.



Daily Office: Matins
Hard to Say
Monday, 28 February 2011

Monday, February 28th, 2011

Scott Shane takes a look at the role of Al Qaeda in the downfall of the Middle East’s autocracies — which, so far, has been “absolutely no role.” Have these upsets consigned militant jihadism to the dustbin, or have they on the contrary worked up some new opportunities for terrorists?

Abu Khaled, a Jordanian jihadist who fought in Iraq with the insurgent leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, suggested that Al Qaeda would benefit in the long run from dashed hopes.

“At the end of the day, how much change will there really be in Egypt and other countries?” he asked. “There will be many disappointed demonstrators, and that’s when they will realize what the only alternative is. We are certain that this will all play into our hands.”

Michael Scheuer, author of a new biography of Mr. bin Laden and head of the C.I.A.’s bin Laden unit in the late 1990s, thinks such enthusiasm is more than wishful thinking.
Mr. Scheuer says he believes that Americans, including many experts, have wildly misjudged the uprisings by focusing on the secular, English-speaking, Westernized protesters who are a natural draw for television. Thousands of Islamists have been released from prisons in Egypt alone, and the ouster of Al Qaeda’s enemy, Mr. Mubarak, will help revitalize every stripe of Islamism, including that of Al Qaeda and its allies, he said.

All we can ask is that younger American voices will have a greater role in shaping this country’s responses to events on the fly. At bottom, what’s happening more or less violently in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere is bound to happen somehow or other all over the world, as the surging demographic of young people challenges the status quo not in the spirit of boredom and caprice that bedeviled the late 1960s but rather in the earnest pursuit of meaningful careers. Today’s kids want to grow up.

Gotham Diary:
Sunday, 27 February 2011

Sunday, February 27th, 2011

Here’s my excuse for not writing as much as I used to do.

Now that there are occasional free-standing moments during our Sunday outings, I can take pictures of Will. Actually, I can shoot him when he’s in the carrier, if he throws his head back. I’m still learning that my eye doesn’t have to be anywhere near the camera when I open the shutter. My own view, when I captured the image above, was of the top of Will’s cap.

Yikes! In this hugely foreshortened image, you can see the camera’s reflection in Will’s pupils.

Gotham Diary:
Friday, 25 February 2011

Friday, February 25th, 2011

Oh, for a couple of photographs! Lacking which, I want to stamp my foot and abandon blogging altogether. If you could only have seen Will yesterday, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art! I’ll say straightaway that he showed no interest in Art, and the idea of a Museum is a little abstract for his tender mind. But I think that he got the Metropolitan part, and that will make 25 February 2011 one of the very few real Dates in my life — and probably the first one not to involve some sort of public ceremony.

Let me be the first to laugh at the pretentiousness of taking a not-quite fourteen-month old child to a museum of anything. Let’s get that out of the way: ha ha! Now, let me tell you why our visit wasn’t pretentious. I’m not going to bore you with blather about the importance of introducing children to culture &c &c. No, the simple fact was that I needed to spend an hour or more indoors with a toddler, and, in my neighborhood, the Museum is the only place that would take us in. From the moment that I knew that I’d be in charge of taking Will out of the apartment so that Megan could get some work done in it — did I say that school’s out this week — I knew that I’d be taking him up the stairs at Fifth Avenue and 82nd Street.

I’d had a vague idea of tottling through the Greek and Roman galleries. Why? Because they’re full of big statues of people, which seemed the likeliest artifacts to elicit Will’s curiosity. But that’s where my idea stopped. It wasn’t until we were actually there that I knew that I’d take him out of the carrier and help him out of his snowsuit. I’ve gotten pretty good at getting Will in and out of the carrier. I’d never taken off his snowsuit before, but just that morning his mother had taught me that if I went about it like so, Will would help out. This turned out to be a lesson that I learned fast.

And so we sat down on a bench in what used to be the Fountain Room (it seemed so much larger when I was small) and I took Will out of the carrier and then out of his snowsuit. I unbuckled the carrier and slipped it over my head, and fashioned it into a sort of bundle in which I could store all of our outdoor gear except for my heavy corduroy jacket. Will stood between my knees for a few beats, and then he took off. Oh, he never went far; he was never ten feet away, and he generally hovered close by. But he stood very much on his own, gazing about the gallery with an expression of beguiled delight that made me feel that I really wasn’t going to ask anything more of life. Kathleen had foreseen that Will would like being a large, airy, light-filled room, and, indeed, a major railroad station or a grand old bank would have done just as well, fifty years ago. He pointed, he cooed, he turned as if to tell me things; once or twice he almost lost his balance, and I thought what hell I’d catch if his head hit the marble floor. But he never fell down, not among the Greek and Roman statues, not among the Nineteenth-Century hideosities in the Kravis Wing, not in the Medieval Hall, not in the Engelhard Court, and not at the Temple of Dendur. Nor did he ever ask to be picked up. He was relishing his safe independence as much as anything. I had no idea what was going through his mind, but he seemed to register the diffference between the big, grey unmoving people standing on plinths and the livelier mortals who came and went at their feet.

After five or ten minutes, I donned my jacket and, with Will on one arm and the bundle in the other, I walked us through the “primitive” galleries to the Kravis wing, where I found a small park chair. This time, all I had to do to be comfortable was to take off my jacket. Later, in the Engelhard Court and at the Temple of Dendur, Will would be mesmerized by the fountain and the moat, but for me, the joy of Our First Visit condensed into a glistening pearl of memory around those first moments among the ancient sculptures, when Will established his metropolitan inclinations.

And then we came home and I cooked dinner for six: you’ll understand why I’m a bit stretched at the moment. More anon…

Oh, for a photograph!

Gotham Diary:
22 February 2011

Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011

After an extraordinarily productive afternoon of paper-sorting — how much more agreeably effective it is to pick up where I left off a few days ago, instead of reinventing the forgotten wheels spun off by work done six months ago — I realized that I’ve misplaced the Fancy Lady Tea Set. I put it away (not paradoxically) for our tea party two weeks ago. The Fancy Lady Tea Set consists of a flowery teacup and saucer, famille rose if you must, a Royal Albert creamer in apple green with flowers that I ought to be able to describe given that it has been there, so to speak, since before I was born, and a new English teapot with an oval footprint, covered in flowery decals. These items of bone china rest on a disc of silver tray that’s just big enough for them. The ensemble is not quite kitsch, but it’s the sort of thing that would not so long ago, by a certain class of woman, be considered “faine.”  The other day, Kathleen actually complained – jocularly  — when I did not give her her afternoon tea on it. (I hadn’t missed it yet, but another teapot was handier.) When I find it, I’ll take a picture. The problem with this apartment is that there are dozens of places in which something like the Fancy Lady Tea Set might be misplaced — and also none.

The Bach in Order project continues. Two out of the five playlists are complete, and when the next shipment from Arkivmusic comes in, bringing two recordings of the French Overture, two more playlists will fill out. The fifth list will be presentable, if far from finished, when the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields recording of Corelli’s Opus 6 arrives. This morning, I rummaged through the closet where all the CDs that are still in their jewel boxes are stacked. (When we gave the CD shelves to Ms NOLA, there were eight yard-high stacks in the closet, but I’ve been working on them, and now there are only seven.) I was looking for a recording of the Goldberg Variations made by Zhu Xiao-Mei. It was recommended to me by a Luxembourgeois banker at a conference in Bermuda in 2000. (I remember hearing someone across the table ask Kathleen, “Why would anybody want to by shares in an ETF?”) The banker said that Ms Zhu’s was simply the best recording out there. I haven’t listened to it in some time, but I recall that it is very good. I’ll hear it later this afternoon, when it comes up on Bach in Order III.

 This morning, Kathleen tried to remember a line from a famous skit. Happily, the text was near to hand, so we were able to get it right.

Basil: Well … may I ask what you were hoping to see out of a Torquay hotel bedroom window? Sydney Opera House perhaps? The Hanging Gardens of Babylon? Herds of wildebeeste sweeping majestically….
Mrs Richards: Don’t be silly. I expect to be able to see the sea.
Basil: You can see the sea. It’s over there between the land and the sky.
Mrs Richards: I’d need a telescope to see that.
Basil: Well, may I suggest you consider moving to a hotel closer to the sea. Or preferably in it.
Mrs Richards: Now listen to me; I’m not satisfied, but I have decided to to stay here. However, I shall expect a reduction.
Basil: Why, because Krakatoa’s not erupting at the moment?

That’s from Communications Problems, with the great Joan Sanderson as Mrs Richards, seen here with Andrew Sachs in the immortal Dexter Haven rally. This all came up because of the terrible earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand. Kathleen wondered how Krakatoa’s eruption measured on the Richter scale. The answer to that question is: VEI 6 (“colossal”); Krakatoa (Krakatau, Indonesia; 1883) was a volcanic explosion, not an earthquake.

And where are my Brian Mortons? All four novels are missing. I must have done something “clever” with them. Perhaps I put them in a “special place,” with a view to writing them up as a group, or having a second look. Perhaps I let somebody borrow all of them. (What a long and miserable old age of senior moments I am bound for!) I was reminded of Breakable You the other day by Woody Allen’s You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger — the first Woody Allen movie that I didn’t see in the theatre in a very long time. (Chalk it up to “The Year of Being a New Grandparent” — a long list.) In the film, the character played by Josh Brolin passes off the manuscript of a dead friend as his own work, and is all set to reap huge undeserved awards when it turns out that the friend isn’t dead — it was somebody else who died — but only in a coma. Coming out of which he’s showing signs. It’s very dark and very funny. In Breakable You, a famous but dried-up writer absconds with the manuscript of a rival who really is dead. And he gets away with it. Three years ago, I wrote,  “Although — as Adam rationalizes the matter — the thing that he does (it will go undescribed here) causes no material harm to anyone, it is so dishonorable that the pages fairly curl in the reader’s hands.”

Earlier, over the weekend, I watched Whatever Works, in which Larry David stands in for Woody Allen. I adore Whatever Works. I love the vaudeville relish with which Allen turns his characters and their contexts on their heads: Patricia Clarkson’s Marietta, for example is transformed (as if in The Metamorphoses) from a pious Southern Baptist who believes in beauty pageants to a gypsy-ish downtown photographer who sleeps with two men — all in the same bed. Her lovers, who are colleagues, discover her with a too-good-to-true enthusiasm that pokes fun at our sophisticated resignation when faced with strange doings in foreign movies; we learn not to doubt what we don’t understand. Marietta’s fame requires us to accept what we know never really happens. And it does so with a look-ma-no-hands vitesse that we can only giggle at. The other thing that I love about Whatever Works is Larry David’s Schopenhauerian bleakness: to him, life is a bad joke that condemns him to spend time in the company of “microbes” and “inchworms” (other people). The pessimism pours out of him like carefully decanted beer. Watching him kvetch, I remembered bouts of similar despair when I was in college — and, bingo! I got it: Boris is a preserved adolescent who has never outgrown his smart-alecky but hypertense uncertainty not about what the future will bring (he knows what that is: death) but when.

Also missing: the Levenger bookweight that belongs in the living room. Will was playing with it. I remember seeing him put it down somewhere, but I don’t remember where that was.

Housekeeping Note:
On Break
21 February 2011

Monday, February 21st, 2011

School’s out this week — and so are we. The Editor has a big day planned for Thursday, one that will keep him out of the house for most of midday. A number of other projects around the house could use a few hours of undivided attention. So the Daily Office will be suspended through Friday. We’ll try to post something every day, but it probably won’t take up much of your time to read.

We wouldn’t you to miss, though, an interesting story — well, one that sums up nicely what everyone already knew — about the changed face of blogging. Verne Kopytoff reports in the Times: “Blogs Wane As Youths Drift to Sites Like Twitter.”

Daily Office
Grand Hours
Saturday, 19 February 2011

Saturday, February 19th, 2011


¶ Nobody who read James Gleick’s Chaos needs to be told that his new book, The Information, a a must-read. (Brainiac)

For Gleick, the essence of information is abstraction. Information exists where one thing (an idea) is abstracted into another thing (a word). But it’s also important that information be granular – broken down into what Shannon called “bits.” It’s this combination of abstraction and regularity that makes the idea of information so useful. The information age arrived, Gleick explains, not with the alphabet, the telephone, or the internet, but when, after it was “made simple, distilled, [and] counted in bits, information was found to be everywhere.”


¶ Megan Lewit knows why Yanks don’t remake Brit comedy very well: “our Anglo friends take their comedy much as they take their tea: black.” Are Americans fundamentally too nice to be hipsters? (The Awl) ¶ We’ve never seen Friday Night Lights, and Kevin Nguyen’s hommage is probably not going to change that, but we read it with great interest just the same. “And maybe that’s the hardest part of selling Friday Night Lights to the uninitiated: it’s a show about football where the football is the least important part.” (The Bygone Bureau) ¶ Dan Callahan’s hot-pressed ode to the neo-noir films of the Eighties and Nineties makes us appreciate the original noirs all the more: watching people smoke cigarettes can be made to be so much more interesting than — well, something with Rachel Ward and Jason Patric called After Dark, My Sweet.

Foley cuts to a shot of Ward’s hands digging into the small of Patric’s back, which is lightly covered with hair. This is an image another movie might not show you; another movie might have made Patric shave that hair on his back, or made Ward cover the lines under her eyes, but After Dark, My Sweet seems to have an almost French appreciation for “flaws” like this and views them as turn-ons.

¶ Jens Laurson sits through Mahler’s Seventh (the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Bernard Haitink) and nicely captures the adolescent grandeur of this fuzzy masterpiece, less difficult than the Sixth but more daring and “out there.”


¶ While waiting to be able to deliver their new plane, the 787 Dreamliner, Boeing executives and engineers must surely be finding the abstract of John Hart-Smith’s brilliantly titled study, “Out-Sourcing Profits: the Cornerstone of Successful Subcontracting,” to be horribly prescient (as well as fantastically readable). They must be wishing that Hart-Smith’s bosses at Boeing, for whom he wrote his cautionary presentation in 2001, had listened. “The point is made that not only is the work out-sourced; all of the profits associated with the work are out-sourced, too.” (via MetaFilter) ¶ Bob Cringely tells us that “the Silicon Valley startup ecosystem isn’t the American startup ecosystem.” The American system is slower and cheaper. (I, Cringely)


¶ Yves Smith parses a mailing from a progressive group that’s trying to change JP Morgan Chase’s foreclosure policies — the group wants the bank to be more willing to modify mortgages — and shows how really lame the group’s proposals are. And she makes two suggestions that would probably offer help more effectively to troubled homeowners — and neither of them involve negotiating or pleading with JPMorgan Chase.. (Naked Capitalism) ¶ With slightly more patience, Robert Reich asks for a Democratic Party plan to counter the Republicans’ strategy of dividing the middle- and lower-classes along union/non-union lines (which today is pretty much a public sector/private sector divide.) ¶ Chris Mooney regards the complex of right-wing think tanks as an alternative to academia that’s less intellectually rigorous. “And now, while good liberals worry about academic balance, these think tanks are out there trouncing reality on a regular basis.” (The Intersection) ¶ Testosterone may increase athletic performance, but in the end it’s only going to let traders down — and, come to think of it, any man who’s supposed to be thinking. (Dynamic Hedge @ The Reformed Broker) ¶ Philip Greenspun rightly judges David Brooks’s “answer” to Tyler Cowen’s The Great Stagnation — Brooks argues that young Americans “seek meaning not money” — is unworthy of a Times columnist. ¶ Amy Westervelt reports on a connection between light pollution and cancer — particularly the cancers that require hormones to grow. This is not offered as a scare but as something to think about. Is worrying in the dark better than worrying in front of the computer? (GOOD) ¶ Finally: “Viewers should not have to adjust the volume at every commercial break, and we will work with the broadcasting industry to find an acceptable solution.” Commercials in Canada won’t be so much louder. (CBC News; via Arts Journal)


¶ Choire Sicha mourns the death of email. “I recently witnessed an entire passive aggressive confrontation occur in the comment sections of other people’s Tumblrs! It wasn’t even taking place on their own Tumblrs! That’s just how distributed conversation has gotten.” What’s Tumblr? <wink> (The Awl) ¶ One of the funniest writers on the Internet, Jimmy Chen, confesses to being “addicted to sad.” Somewhat more problematically, he also uses Vuillard’s The Newspaper to illustrate an essay that concerns his own failure as a painter. Of course we forgive him. Vuillard, after all…  (HTMLGiant) ¶ Dominique Browning is too polite to put it categorically, but although you can’t always respond to a question with the required degree of interest, but you must never, ever dismiss what another person asks as a “bad question,” or as “boring and banal.” These maladroit moves remind us of the old saw that “boring is not where you are, it’s who you are.” ¶ Stephen Sherrill’s spoof of a book proposal actually written by Shrub isn’t the timeliest funny piece in the world, but it’s too delicious to overlook. It reminds us that the late president was what used to be called “affected,” but in an inverse way: a born patrician, he pretended to sound working class. Amazingly if not surprisingly, the gambit succeeded. (GQ; via The Rumpus)


¶ Rupa Sengupta muses on the “glocal” dissemination of American “soft power” — its pop-culture leadership. N “The future seems to be about partnerships, not one-way tickets; cross-currents, not hegemonies.” (Times of India; via Real Clear World) ¶ Morgan Meis takes a dry-eyed look at Al-Jazeera’s funding and still concludes that it may be journalism’s best hope — for the time being. (The Smart Set; via 3 Quarks Daily) ¶ Hugh Miles, writing about Libya, reminds us that “Unlike Tunisia and Egypt, Libya has substantial oil wealth and steps have been taken to placate the people by raising salaries and releasing some political prisoners.


¶ What ought to be a crashingly unreadable downtown review of a difficult poet becomes, under the touch of Olga Zilberbourg, an intriguing encounter with a reader whom you’d like to know better — even if you “know better.” Here’s the premise: “This is certain: I read Coolidge in the context of my experience, and my experience is grounded in 20th C Leningrad-St. Petersburg poetry.” You’ll have to teake it from me that the experience is fertile. (HTMLGiant) ¶ Bill Morris, asked to write a blurb for a friend’s book, swallows hard but gets a truly fine essay out of the experience that fingers all the complexities of this dark and undismissible subject. Also, happy ending: he can write a nice blurb with a clear conscience. (The Millions)


¶ Catherine McNally, a librarian from the Liverpool area, writes a defense of libraries that presents her own branch as a kind of community center for the exchange of information. One wonders how quiet it is,  and how quiet, in this age of headphones, it ought to be. (Guardian; via Arts Journal) ¶ Rick Gekoski wants us to stop talking rot about the virtues of “books” and “reading,” and he quotes an apt line of Philip Larkin: “I should never call myself a book lover any more than a people lover. It all depends what’s inside them.” (Ditto; Ditto)

Have a Look

¶ Spencer Murphy’s “Fallen Empire” project: the “ruins” of a Chinese theme park in Florida. (via The Best Part) ¶ Molly Lewis wants to have Stephen Fry’s child, and her boyfriend thinks it’s okay. She is one talented song-writer. (YouTube; via MetaFilter) ¶ The Beatles — as they’ll be understood a thousand years from now. (Death to the History Channel!) (via Brainiac)


¶ Now you can make your own Coca-Cola at home. (This American Life; via ¶ Blake Butler writes from Level Zero. (HTMLGiant) ¶ The Weakonomist on “biflation.” (Weakonomics) ¶ Americans with passports; per capita by state (Grey’s Blog) ¶ We are not going to wax sentimental about this story of the last days of Borders; we’d have done the same thing. (I, Cringely)

Daily Office: Vespers
Friday, 18 February 2011

Friday, February 18th, 2011

Further evidence that Park Slope is a grim and humorless part of town — a socialist suburbia nestling in Hither Brooklyn — will be found in a story filed this morning by two Times reporters, Anemona Hartocollis and Juliet Linderman: “At a Food Co-op, a Discordant Thought: Nannies Covering Shifts.”

Jeremie Delon, 31, an on-again, off-again member, admitted to taking some pleasure from the thought that co-op members might sometimes misbehave.

Mr. Delon said he had dropped out of the co-op five years ago, after a woman yelled at him for leaving his cart in the checkout line while he went back for an item he had forgotten (another violation of co-op rules). He rejoined recently after becoming a father.

He said the co-op had asked for a birth certificate as proof of the baby’s existence, and was now chasing down the baby’s mother, demanding that she join and put in her time, because all adult members of a household are required to work shifts.

“I’m a punk rocker at heart, so rules are tough for me,” Mr. Delon said. “Sometimes I ask myself if the co-op is really worth it.”

Some members conceded that having the nanny do the work was tempting. “In my fantasy, I’d have my nanny cover my shift,” Sarah Rivkin, 39, said. But she added that she knew that would be “inappropriate.”

Anyway, she said she would be too intimidated. A friend of hers had married a Cuban immigrant, who summed up why Ms. Rivkin felt that way.

“His assessment of the co-op is that the co-op is worse than socialism,” she said. “Because at least in a socialist country, if you know the right people, you can get out of it.”

Bon weekend à tous!


Friday, February 18th, 2011

What’s the good of having a refrigerator without someone to play with the magnets?  

Here in New York, the weather is unseasonably warm, and no joke. Thinking it a bad idea to overdo the spring-feverish liberation from heavy clothes, I wore what I’ve been wearing lately, minus the sweater and the scarf. A mistake; I got quite hot, running an errand up to Carnegie Hill. I was tempted to take a taxi home, but I couldn’t decide what to do for lunch. The Shake Shack, as you can imagine, was crowded, with a line threading along the window from the door — and then down the stairs, of course; it would have taken forever to do lunch. And I’d left my copy of the London Review of Books at the movies, dammit.

That’s not like me, but I was so bowled over by Unknown that it was all I could do to collect my jacket and my shoulder bag. I’m not going to appraise the plausibility of the screenplay; the best thing to be said about it was that it is never implausible. That’s because what happens to Dr Martin Harris seems so implausible to him, and Liam Neeson knows how to make Martin’s befuddlement so agonizing to us, that we’re not inclined to evaluate the likelihood of anything. The acting is superb all round — even January Jones is riveting — and Berlin provides a sleek and cosmopolitan setting. (The famous Adlon Hotel lends its services, presumably suffering no damage that CGI can’t undo.) The action is breathless but never incoherent.

Unknown depends upon the audience’s misreading of the opening scene, in which Martin and his wife, Liz (Ms Jones) fly into Berlin, where Martin is to make a presentation at a science conference. If you’ve seen the trailer for the film, then you know that Elizabeth is going not only to deny knowing Martin at the conference but also to claim that another man (Aidan Quinn) is her husband Martin. It’s quite the nightmare, but only if you make the assumptions about Martin and Elizabeth that the film wants you to make.  In this way it is different from the Bourne movies, where Jason Bourne, like a patient in analysis, seeks to retrieve memories of a past that trauma has erased. Martin Harris’s trajectory goes in the opposite direction. He wakes from a coma, four days after an accident, alarmed to discover that only he knows who he is.

Diane Kruger, who played the vampish counterspy in Inglourious Basterds, is fierce rather than glamorous this time; she playsGina, an illegal immigrant from Bosnia whose palette of hardscrabble jobs run from driving a taxi to waiting in cheap restaurants. Although Martin promises to make it up to her for bringing so much trouble into her life (and, in the end, delivers on his promise), Gina comes across as Martin’s scrappy protector, almost a patron saint. She’s physically fearless (at least behind the wheel of a car), and she has enough common sense to make up for Martin’s lack of it. Among the supporting actors, Bruno Ganz stands out as a ruminative former Stasi detective who meets his own end with courage; he seems to have seen everything and thought about it all at least twice. Other German actors who make Unknown a first-rate entertainment include Sebastian Koch, as a brilliant genetic biologist, Rainer Bock, as the Adlon’s manager; and Karl Markovics and Eva Löbau as the doctor and nurse who care for Martin during his coma and afterward. All I can about Frank Langella’s contribution is that you know that he’s playing a very bad man just by the way that he sounds like a really nice one.

I always sit in the back of movie theatres because I don’t want to risk blocking someone else’s view, but today I had another reason to be glad that there were only one or two people sitting in rows further from the screen: it hit me at the end that I must have put on quite a show myself, what with all my flinching and ducking and wincing and eye-hiding. If possible, Unknown is even more viscerally challenging than Mr Neeson’s last adventure, Taken. You can see why I forgot my LRB.

The picture of Will that I wish I’d been able to take would have shown him darting about the apartment with his left hand in his father’s and his right hand clutching a yardstick with the authority of a rudimentary Wotan (or Siegfried, maybe). At one point, he stood still enough for his mother to determine that he is 31 inches tall. He is thirteen and a half months old.  And quite pleased with himself: when he replaced a refrigerator magnet after having just pried it loose, he applauded himself in his soundless way — he doesn’t bring his hand all the way together. In my own soundless way, I applaud his parents.


Daily Office: Matins
“Time to Perform”
Friday, 18 February 2011

Friday, February 18th, 2011

We’ll be damned: there are Times readers who will be surprised to learn that trial lawyers are a superstitious bunch. Or maybe not; maybe Benjamin Weiser and his editors are just pretending, so that they can share a lot of ridiculous anecdotes.  

“Trial lawyers believe in jinxes,” Mr. Finzi acknowledged from White Plains, where he is defending a man in a murder trial. Along with using his keen judgment and legal skills, Mr. Finzi made clear that he was doing whatever else was necessary.

“I’ve been up here 10 days,” he said earlier this month, “and I’ve had a tuna fish sandwich for lunch every single day.”

But Joshua L. Dratel questioned his colleagues’ adherence to superstition, asking, “If where I ate dinner last night decides the merits of a case, then what’s the point of even trying?”

And Steven M. Cohen, another veteran lawyer, observed, “You certainly wouldn’t want to learn that your heart surgeon or your 747 pilot always wears the same pair of underwear when it’s time to perform.”

Ah, but surgeons and pilots actually know what they’re doing. “Keen judgment” and “legal skills” don’t come into it.

Daily Office: Vespers
Throw the Baggage Out?
Thursday, 17 February 2011

Thursday, February 17th, 2011

No one does outrage more appealingly than Gail Collins. Her target today is Lone Star governor Rick Perry, who seems hell-bent on creating a populous underclass of unwanted, uneducated, and untrained Texans.

Meanwhile, Perry — having chosen not to help young women avoid unwanted pregnancies and not to pay enough to educate the booming population of Texas children — wowed the crowd at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington with his states’ rights rhetoric.

Which would be fine, as I said, if his state wasn’t in charge of preparing a large chunk of the nation’s future work force. Perry used to be famous for his flirtation with talk of secession. Maybe we should encourage him to revisit it.

One thing that the Editor learned during his sojourn in Texas in the 1970s was that many people down there seem to think that they’re living in an independent republic that’s occupied by noisome federales. Maybe it’s time for the United States to withdraw its forces (and its moolah) from the alien corn.

Reading Jennifer Egan:
Shameful Triumphs
17 February 2011

Thursday, February 17th, 2011

The game with time begins right away, although it is subtly played at first. The first paragraph of the first tale begins with an episode of what would be shoplifting if a store were the victim, and not a woman in a toilet stall who has left her purse imprudently outside it. It ends, this paragraph, with Sasha, the thief, describing her feelings  about lifting the woman’s wallet to her therapist. Wo we have a foreground present in the therapist’s office, and midway present, an evening not long before the time in the therapists office, and, in the background, several planes of increasing vagueness, the nearest of which is a summary of Sasha’s treatment and her relationship with the doctor, called Coz. Behind this, an inscrutable past — Sasha’s first days in New York, glimpsed at in a list of edifying things to do that she taped to a wall; at the very back, the disappearance of Sasha’s father when she was six. Somewhere in that dark lies an explanation, presumably, for Sasha’s pathology. But we’re not going to look for explanations. What good would it do to know why stealing things invigorates Sasha. It’s enough to keep “wrong and bad and exactly right” in mind.

The episode of stealing ends well: Sasha manages to return the wallet discreetly while confessing to the owner that “It’s a problem I have.” The other woman is so relieved to have her wallet back that she agrees to keep it “between us.” Then Sasha returns to her date, Alex. Until the theft, Sasha and Alex were bored by one another; while she was stealing the wallet, Alex was settling the bill, ready to move on to something else, probably without Sasha. The theft, and then the restoration of the wallet — a sequence of hot maneuvers that Egan manages adroitly — change the date’s temperature, and Alex returns to Sasha’s apartment, where all the things that she has stolen over the years are laid out on two tables. Alex’s attention is caught by the bathtub in the kitchen — a New York arrangement that he has heard about but never seen — but eventually his eyes find the loot.

What’s all this?” Alex asked. 

He’d discovered the tables now and was staring at the pile. It looked like the work of a miniaturist beaver: a heap of objects that was illegible yet clearly not random. To Sasha’s eyes, it almost shook under its load of embarrassments and close shaves and little  riumphs and moments of pure exhilaration. It contained years of her life compressed. The screwdriver was at the outer edge. Sasha moved closer to Alex, drawn to the sight of him taking everything in.

“And how did you feel, standing with Alex in front of all those things you’d stolen?” Coz asked.

Sasha turned her face into the blue couch because her cheeks were heating up and she hated that. She didn’t want to explain to Coz the mix of feelings she’d had, standing there with Alex: the pride she took in these objects, a tenderness that was only heightened by the shame of their acquisition. She’d risked everything, and here was the result: the raw, warped core of her life. Watching Alex move his eyes over the pile of objects stirred something in Sasha. She put her arms around him from behind, and he turned, surprised, but willing.

The tast for me is to relate to this pathology. Not to understand it, much less explain it, but relate to it. The temptation to heave the door shut on Sasha is as overwhelming as is her itch to steal other people’s stuff. That I can fairly grasp. it’s the excitement and the triumph that elude me. I did a lot of small-time rotten things when I was a kid, and they never made me feel anything but desperately ashamed. Each petty crime was its own Fall; until I pulled the chair out from the sixth-grade classmate as she was sitting down, I had no idea just how awful a thing it was to do; the memory, quite vivid fifty years later, still makes me shudder. I was driven by curiosity, but the bits of knowledge turned out to be wildly expensive, and I always wished that I hadn’t wanted to know. With Sasha it seems to be different. I cannot imagine constructing that miniaturist pile. 

But I’m as exciting about trying to get close to this as Sasha was by the woman’s wallet.

Daily Office: Matins
Our Hero
Thursday, 17 February 2011

Thursday, February 17th, 2011

Like the lady said… We had never heard of Gene Sharp until reading about him in Sheryl Gay Stolberg’s story this morning. No matter; we’re instant fans of any specialist in non-violent resistance.

Based on studies of revolutionaries like Gandhi, nonviolent uprisings, civil rights struggles, economic boycotts and the like, he has concluded that advancing freedom takes careful strategy and meticulous planning, advice that Ms. Ziada said resonated among youth leaders in Egypt. Peaceful protest is best, he says — not for any moral reason, but because violence provokes autocrats to crack down. “If you fight with violence,” Mr. Sharp said, “you are fighting with your enemy’s best weapon, and you may be a brave but dead hero.”

Daily Office: Vespers
Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Wednesday, February 16th, 2011

David Leonhardt‘s piece on the importance of cities generally and the impact of de-urbanization on Egypt in particular climaxes with an eye-popping figure.

A 35-year-old urban Egyptian man with a high school education who moves to the United States can expect an incredible eightfold increase in living standards, the researchers found. Immigrants from only two countries, Yemen and Nigeria, receive a larger boost. In effect, these are the countries with the biggest gap between what their workers can produce in a different environment and what they are actually producing at home.

No wonder 19 percent of Egyptians told Gallup (well before the protests) that they would move to another country if they could. Mr. Clemens says that for every green card the United States awarded in a recent immigration lottery, 146 Egyptians had applied

So one of the tasks facing Mr. Mubarak’s successors will be creating places within Egypt where Egyptians want to move, much as Indian workers have flowed into Bangalore and Brazilian workers have flowed into Rio.

Big Ideas:
Marshall McLuhan

Wednesday, February 16th, 2011

How supremely piquant it was to read, in one swallow, Douglas Coupland’s book, Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work! (the subtitle comes from a line spoken by McLuhan himself in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall), on the day when Borders’ bankruptcy, long anticipated, was finally announced. Way back when Borders was taking off, expanding nationally, buying WaldenBooks, hadn’t anybody read The Gutenberg Galaxy?

I’m not going to pretend that I read it, not the whole thing. Like everyone else, I thought, at the time, that Marshall McLuhan was hostile to the high culture of the West, and that he relished its immolation in staticky, low-resolution images of bad television. I thought that he welcomed the End of Civilization As We Knew It. I also thought that he was impossible to read. I regarded McLuhan as a mad Canadian, driven by the boredom of the prairies to predict a human cataclysm. But I sensed that he was right about books, somehow or other.

The Enlightenment dream of mass readerships turns out not to have been psychologically acute. For most people, reading is an escapist, not an instructive pastime. Few people read to learn if they’re not required to do so. The vast run of retail history books, for example, is hardly more scholarly than the romance fiction and knitting manuals that “history buffs” look down their noses at on their wives’ and girlfriends’ nightstands; weighty tomes as they may be, the books simply massage pre-existing accumulations of facts relating to this or that war. Reading, ironically, is not a visual activity; it puts our ocular apparatus to an unintended use. (Nothing is more natural than unintended uses.) Most people would rather sit back and watch something. For a century and a half or so, beginning in 1800, a combination of civic virtue — democracies have been thought to depend upon literate electorates —and the absence of alternative entertainments conspired to create the illusion of a vast reading public. Well, there may actually have been a vast reading public, for a while. But it was not a willing one, and when technology advanced after World War II, and authority retreated, books were replaced by screens.

Coupland’s biography, of course, is merely an extended essay, blending stories from McLuhan’s life with glancing meditations on the vastness of Canada, academic pettifoggery, and the Internet — something that McLuhan would have loved to hate, according to the author. This is the kind of book that we like to read now: brisk, knowing, and personal. Of course a biography ought to be personal, you might say, but I mean personal with respect to the writer, who is something of a cultural groundbreaker himself. (Coupland coined the term “Generation X.”)  It will not replace the serious studies by Marchand and Gordon that are mentioned at the outset (but identified only in the notes), but who would read those now save students of intellectual history? You Know Nothing of My Work! links the mad scientist to the mad world that he foresaw. If it fails to deliver a plausible account of the transformation of a Renaissance scholar into a media guru for whom that very term had to be invented, it does a fine job of suggesting why nobody — not McLuhan, not the businessmen who retained him, not even Pierre Trudeau — was able to mine any practical advantage from his work. If McLuhan sensed the outlines of a coming era, he was nevertheless unable to speed the coming. Much of the time, he comes across as a more successful John Forbes Nash, possessed of a beautiful mind that was better attuned to perceptible patterns.

At the end of the book, Coupland tells us that he was inspired to write it by the history of his own Canadian family, and he evokes the life of his cement-salesman grandfather in a passage that’s worthy of Alice Munro.

What thoughts would fill the mind of Arthur Lemuel Campbell? Did he hate the past? Did he want to drive into the future, and, if so, where did he perceive the future as being — to the west? To the east? Above his head? All that driving and all that flatness, all thoses Sundays and rooming house meals with pursed lips and ham hock dinners with creamed corn and the fear of God. Our Father, who are in heaven. And always the family left behind — High River; Regina; Edmonton; Swift Current — family gone crazy, family gone religious, family dying young. Don’t complain and don’t explain. Cut your losses. Cut your family before they cut you. Be weak. Be crazy. Be insane. Be humble. Bow before God. Pretend you’re something you’re not. Rise above your station and pay the price. Keep you opinions to yourself. Die alone, even when surrounded by others. You will be judged. There will never be peace. There will never be sanctuary, because there will always be something lurking on the other side of the horizon that will be a threat to you. Pay cash. Credit is the devil.


Of all the bookstores that I’ve ever visited, Borders was easily the most decadent, the most intoxicated by the idea that books are precious objects that radiate their contents in glimmering auras; there can’t be any need to read books if you’re surrounded by so many excellent titles. (The only thing missing was a line of fragrances named after beloved classics and redolent of the freshest sawdust.) I detected nothing cynical about this projection; the good people at Borders were good people. But there were far too many of them. A proper bookshop ought to be a bit creaky, inconvenient, and forbidding — just a bit. Borders was entirely too dreamy.

Daily Office: Matins
Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Wednesday, February 16th, 2011

There’s an exciting movie to be made in the story of Ahmed ElShabrawy, an Egyptian entrepreneur who managed to puncture the Mubarak régime’s Internet shutdown.  

With the streets unsafe because of marauding bands of looters, he decided to risk having a driver bring $7,000 in satellite equipment, including a four-foot dish, from Cairo, and somehow he was connected internationally again by Monday evening.

Steeling himself for the blast of complaints from angry customers — his company also provides texting services in Europe and the Middle East — Mr. ElShabrawy found time to post videos of the protests in Mansoura on his Facebook page. But with security officials asking questions about what he was up to, he did not dare hook up his domestic subscribers.
Then, gingerly, he reached out to his international customers, his profuse apologies already framed in his mind.

The response that poured in astonished Mr. ElShabrawy, who is nothing if not a conscientious businessman, even in turbulent times. “People said: ‘Don’t worry about that. We are fine and we need to know that you are fine. We are all supporting you.’ ”

Daily Office: Vespers
Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Tuesday, February 15th, 2011

Scientists have discovered that low-grade bullying among social rivals is far more common in high schools than the thuggish kind. The battle for popularity may not break bones, but it becomes more unpleasant as contestants approach the top of the tree — only to disappear, according to Tara Parker-Pope, among the top two percentiles.

“At the very top you start to see a reversal — the kids in the top 2 percent are less likely to be aggressive,” Dr. Faris said. “The interpretation I favor is that they no longer need to be aggressive because they’re at the top, and further aggression could be counterproductive, signaling insecurity with their social position.

“It’s possible that they’re incredibly friendly and everybody loves them and they were never mean, but I’m not so convinced by that, because there are so many kids right behind them in the hierarchy who are highly aggressive.”

Over all, the research shows that about a third of students are involved in aggressive behavior. In another paper presented last year, Dr. Faris reported that most teenage aggression is directed at social rivals — “maybe one rung ahead of you or right beneath you,” as he put it, “rather than the kid who is completely unprotected and isolated.”

It occurs to us that social bullying is a kind of vaccine that renders inoculated adolescents immune to the worst ravages of adult envy and jealousy. There might be something good to say about high school, after all.

Gotham Diary:

Tuesday, February 15th, 2011

I left my cap at the restaurant where a friend and I had croques monsieur for lunch today. Happily, I missed it right away — when, crossing Madison Avenue, I stepped into the sunlight; it was still frigid, but my scalp went into immediate sunburn alert — so we didn’t have to retrace too many steps. As we turned the corner by the restaurant, I saw my cap hanging on a sort of post just outside the door. My friend assured me that I had not put it there myself. I was a bit put out; why would the restaurant staff put my cap outside where anyone passing by might take it? “Because they knew you’d be back in ten seconds, it’s so cold,” said my friend. There was no arguing with that; it’s exactly what happened.


Tidying the bedroom yesterday afternoon, I watched Les Choristes, Christophe Barratier’s heartwarming reform-school film, starring Gérard Juqnot. Even before it began, the sight of M Juqnot on the menu screen choked me up, and I wept more or less copiously through the movie. If you haven’t seen it, Les Choristes is about a discouraged musician, one Clément Mathieu (M Juqnot) who takes a job as prefect at a boarding school for troublesome boys. The headmaster is a monster who believes in “action-reaction,” or crime and punishment, and every infraction is punished lavishly. To put something positive in the lives of his wretched charges (who are, however, amply troublesome and always up to some mischief), Mathieu forms them into a chorus. Barratier isn’t so naive as to propose that the transformative power of music &c tames the boys’ savage breasts. It’s Mathieu’s interest and concern that restores their faith in humanity. The music is lovely, though. I should not have thought that Rameau could make me blubber like a baby. 

Gérard Jucqnot plays a very similar role in Faubourg 36,  Barratier’s other movie. Patiently self-effacing, bottomlessly good-natured, a careworn saint. Has anyone in Hollywood specialized in this kind of role? Aside, that is, from Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton; has anyone played such parts earnestly, not for laughs?

When Les Choristes was over, I had the most awful sinus headache.


In a recent email, a good friend shared a dream that she’d had — about us.

I had a very strange dream the other night involving you and Kathleen. I was in your apartment admiring a lovely glass-fronted bookcase and Kathleen said that the two of you had decided to get rid of it. I asked what was going in its place and Kathleen responded ‘a guillotine.’ When I asked where one would get a guillotine, Kathleen told me that she found one that could be rented for $600.

I wish that I could tell you why I find this so funny, but I can’t, and it’s not because I don’t know. It’s because I don’t want to get anybody into trouble. Let’s just say that, if there were no repercussions to the use and enjoyment of a guillotine in the privacy of one’s home, aside from the $600 rental fee, then somebody in that dream — and I’m not saying who — would definitely arrange to have one delivered immediately.

It has been a long winter. “Everyone’s being crabby,” said Somebody, “and I’m being crabby right back.” 

Daily Office: Matins
In Case of End Times
Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Tuesday, February 15th, 2011

We can’t think what the Times is up to, publishing William Glaberson’s “A Legal Manual for an Apocalpytic New York.” It’s not that readers ought to be protected from awareness of such dismal reckonings. But if we’re going to be told how the courts are preparing to deal with quarantines and evacuations and worse, let’s hear the news in a more interactive forum. or at least in a context that encourages reflection and preparation instead of panic.

Perhaps the point of the story is to show that the courts don’t really know what they’re doing.

But the guide also presents a sober rendition of what the realities might be in dire times. The suspension of laws, it says, is subject to constitutional rights. But then it adds, “This should not prove to be an obstacle, because federal and state constitutional restraints permit expeditious actions in emergency situations.”

When there is not enough medicine for everyone in an emergency, it notes, there is no clear legal guidepost. It suggests legal decisions would most likely involve an analysis that “balances the obligation to save the greatest number of lives against the obligation to care for each single patient,” perhaps giving preference to those with the best chance to survive. It points out, though, that elderly and disabled people might have a legal claim if they are discriminated against at such moments of crisis.

That is almost the opposite of news. On a “news you can use” scale, this report rates a 0.5.