Archive for March, 2011

Daily Office: Vespers
Off to a Very Bad Start
Thursday, 31 March 2011

Thursday, March 31st, 2011

What ought to have been a blessed event is turning into one that will leave a bad smell. Will you wait to buy your copy of The Pale King, the posthumous novel by David Foster Wallace, at your local independent bookstore, where it’s supposed to go on sale on 15 April? Or will you click your way to more immediate possession at Amazon’s or Barnes & Noble’s Web sites?

Amazon and Barnes & Noble were selling the book on their Web sites on Wednesday, long before many bookstores would receive copies. Nicole Dewey, a spokeswoman for Little, Brown, part of Hachette, said the official on-sale date for the book was March 22, but the publication date — when the book is available everywhere — remained April 15. (A countdown clock on the Hachette Web site ticks away the days, hours and minutes until April 15.)

“I don’t really understand the confusion,” Ms. Dewey said. “This happens all the time. There’s nothing unusual about it.”

It was a distinction lost on many bookstores, who erupted in protest on Wednesday when they heard that Amazon was already selling the hotly anticipated book.

“Outrageous,” said Zack Zook, the general manager and events coordinator at BookCourt, an independent store in Brooklyn. “If stuff like this keeps happening, booksellers are going to start suing publishers.”

In the mean time, we’re reading Suicide, by Édouard Levé, a French writer who killed himself after handing in the manuscript.

Gotham Diary:
The Dump

Thursday, March 31st, 2011

The Times is running a new feature in the Thursday Home section, “Domestic Lives,” in which writers — novelists, so far as I can tell — revisit the scenes of their youth. I don’t know how long the series has been running, but I noticed it for the first time last week, when Kevin Baker went back to Rockport, Massachusetts, and wrote warmly if ambivalently about the town. “Rockport, as a good town should, showed me the way out when I was young and I seized those invitations.” This week, Francine Prose revisited her childhood home, a big house in Ditmas Park, a once-grand part of Brooklyn. She was welcomed by the Grenadian family that owns the house now, but only to enter the living room, not the rest of the house. She left with ambivalent feelings as well, although in her case these were attributable to the work of time. In any case, both pieces surprised me with the realization that I’ve grown very detached from my own childhood. 

This feels like a side-effect of grandfatherhood: It’s Will’s childhood that’s interesting now. But it’s easy for me to feel that way, because my own childhood was not interesting — or, rather, it was interesting in a lot of unpleasant ways. I was an odd little boy and I felt that this made me a bad little boy, because oddness was not appreciated in the Fifties, not at all. I have never entirely gotten over the feeling that there is something deeply wrong with me, wrong at the core — and all the worse because I’m untroubled by it. If the atmosphere in my parents’ house had been religious, I suppose I’d simply feel like a sinner. Instead, I feel like a deviant, and nothing makes that sense of deviance sharper than the idea of returning to Bronxville. 

It’s hard to talk about an unhappy childhood without seeming to blame somebody, and I’ve long outgrown any desire to complain about my parents. I reserve my complaints for the adoption racket that placed me with them. I don’t mean that somebody at the Foundling Hospital made a bad choice. It’s rather the system itself, which encouraged everyone involved to simulate the appearance of natural bonds. “We couldn’t love you more if you were really ours,” they were told to say. I don’t think that it took long for my mother to fear that she didn’t mean it. She could never have produced such a strange little boy — such a critical little boy. 

From an early age, I thought that our house could have been much nicer, and I often said so. I hated my own room, which was furnished with what was supposed to be manly, Southwestern-themed oak; I thought it was tacky. So I hung out in the basement and played with my train sets (which were always pathetically juvenile — I have never lusted after anything with my eyes the way I did the amazing layouts in Model Railroader). Or I wandered through the undeveloped forest across the road, telling myself stories about building a house for myself in the middle of the woods. This house would be small and neat, like the ones in the mural of New Amsterdam that hung on the wall of the den, over the sofa. I would live either in the basement, with a high window at sidewalk level, or in the attic, in a cosy dormer. (This is how I spent my time, instead of tossing balls of one size or another at other boys.)

My dreams of snug corners didn’t mean that, for the time being — until my new town with its canals and squares occupied the vacant lots — I wouldn’t prefer to live in a larger, more imposing house, preferably one with columns along the front. Eventually, the appeal of columns paled beside that of a rambling late-medieval manor house, like one of the impressive exemples of faux-Tudor architecture that clustered in the triangle made by Masterson Road, Elm Rock Road, and Studio Lane. Not that I’d have wanted to live in one of them, though, because they were in Bronxville. 

I don’t want to complain about Bronxville, either. But the thought of living there is so horrifying that it almost stops my heart. Let me just say that I have every reason that Bronxville’s is still the kind of community that it was when I was a boy, and that I could never live in such a community. Not ever. Which is what makes the essays by Kevin Baker and Francine Prose so interesting. They can write about their childhoods more or less equably. I have a hard time keeping mine from sounding like a Dickensian nightmare. Which it wasn’t. But I’ve long since fallen into the habit of associating the good memories with “who I am proud to be today,” and all the bad ones with “childhood.” I can’t go back, because I’ve turned the past into a dump. 

So, even though I grew up in one of the most affluent and comfortable spots on earth (I do not exaggerate), I think that my grandson is a great deal luckier to be growing up a block away from Tomkins Square Park in Alphabet City, a neighborhood that my parents wouldn’t think much of even in its current semi-gentrified condition. Manhattan life never appealed to either one of them; they knew that the island was home to a lot of strange people, people whom one wouldn’t know, people odd enough to enjoy being alone in the middle of a crowd. In creaky old Yorkville, I have found something that i never had when I was a little boy. I’m inclined to call it “privacy.” 

Daily Office: Matins
Coming Soon: Idiocracy
Thursday, 31 March 2011

Thursday, March 31st, 2011

Publicity consultant Alan Oxley and Institute for Liberty president Andrew Langer claim that it’s just a coincidence that the Institute is advocating tariff repeals that would be favorable to Mr Oxley’s client, Asia Pulp and Paper. We’d like to think that Tea Partiers would withdraw from their association with the Isntitute upon learning of its thoroughly un-populist campaign, but we can’t bring ourselves to believe that Tea Partiers are quite bright enough to see through the slick.

Tariff-free Asian paper may seem an unlikely cause for a nonprofit Tea Party group. But it is in keeping with a succession of pro-business campaigns — promoting commercial space flight, palm oil imports and genetically modified alfalfa — that have occupied the Institute for Liberty’s recent agenda.

The Tea Party movement is as deeply skeptical of big business as it is of big government. Yet an examination of the Institute for Liberty shows how Washington’s influence industry has adapted itself to the Tea Party era. In a quietly arranged marriage of seemingly disparate interests, the institute and kindred groups are increasingly the bearers of corporate messages wrapped in populist Tea Party themes.

In a few instances, their corporate partners are known — as with the billionaire Koch brothers’ support of Americans for Prosperity, one of the most visible advocacy groups. More often, though, their nonprofit tax status means they do not have to reveal who pays the bills.

Mr. Langer would not say who financed his Indonesian paper initiative. But his sudden interest in the issue coincided with a public relations push by Asia Pulp & Paper. And the institute’s work is remarkably similar to that produced by one of the company’s consultants, a former Australian diplomat named Alan Oxley who works closely with a Washington public affairs firm known for creating corporate campaigns presented as grass-roots efforts.

Daily Office: Vespers
Eastern Empire
Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Wednesday, March 30th, 2011

Jan Gordinier writes about Bon Yagi, “An East Village Ambassador for Japanese Cuisine.” Mr Yagi owns 11 restaurants in the East Village, and has committed a portion of their profits to Red Cross relief in Japan.

If you have a fondness for Japanese food, especially the unpretentious street grub and lunchbox fare that are a common part of day-to-day life in Japan, it’s likely that you’ve patronized one of Mr. Yagi’s 11 restaurants.


All of them joined a growing list of restaurants, including JoJo, SD26, Telepan and Mercer Kitchen, in the Dine Out for Japan Relief campaign, which planned to give to the Red Cross — 5 percent of their profits was suggested — from March 23 to 30.

New York has no Japantown, per se, but in his quiet, deliberate way, Mr. Yagi has dedicated himself to building just such a culinary and cultural vortex, casting himself as its mustachioed Buddhist godfather, reverently known as Yagi-san.

“He’s kind of a pioneer,” said Chikako Ichihara, the president and chief executive of Azix, a marketing and consulting company that helps promote Japanese food and culture. “He brought real Japanese food to New Yorkers.”

Almost every Sunday, the Editor takes his grandson on a walk right through the heart of Yagi-san’s empire. He looks forward to taking the boy inside one of the restaurants, one fine day.

Reading Note:
Rodin’s Debutante
by Ward Just

Wednesday, March 30th, 2011

Rodin’s Debutante is Ward Just’s seventeenth novel. It has left me grappling with my response. As a novel — as a work of fiction with a beginning, an end, and, not too long before the end, an excitement of some kind — I found it wanting. There were several beginnings, and the excitement was distributed throughout the book with little sense of overall pacing. I was not sure what the book was about, really. But these are formal concerns, difficulties with the mechanics. Which is not to suggest that the book didn’t purr along smoothly, or that I was ever anything but eager to turn the page. But I had the sense ot too much of this and not enough of that. And by the time I was done, I was pretty sure that I’d have enjoyed the reading of Rodin’s Debutante much more if it had been presented as a series of discrete stories, sharing characters but not narrative trajectories. Each story would have concerned an aspect of the life of Lee Goodell, whose coming-of-age novel it is. There are several very fine stories in the book; there are none that aren’t engaging. I’m aware that the author may have rejected this novel-in-stories approach because “life isn’t like that.” What’s more, now that I’ve done with the reading, my memory is doing a fine job of reorganizing the material in separate stories. I find myself wondering, why does it matter how Ward Just decided to lay out his novel? 

The satisfactions of Rodin’s Debutante remain considerable. They have everything to do with the recreation of a bygone America that has left few traces. The country was closer to its pious origins during the novel’s time-frame, which runs from 1914 to 1963; it was simpler and more earnest. An uneasy sophistication was beginning to settle on the shoulders of the elite, who could see an unwanted class structure emerge in the shift from an agrarian to an industrial society. Whatever pipe dreams Jefferson might have harbored for yeoman farmers, it was difficult to conceive of an enlightened urban proletariat, and the propertied classes did not give the undertaking much effort. Instead, the professionals who administered the affairs of the wealthy slipped naturally into positions of patriarchal oversight from which they kept the peace among the general public by whatever means they deemed fit. But they remained uncomfortable with the idea of their power. It looked too much like the old aristocracy that their forebears had left behind in Europe. Candor suffered as a result. Left hands got good at doing things that right hands didn’t know about. 

Only an outsider would see hypocrisy here, and it is precisely the absence of hypocrisy that Just establishes in the most powerful of the stories that he tells in Rodin’s Debutante. This is the story of Magda Serra. Magda is a classmate of Lee’s at the high school in the Lake Michigan town somewhere between Chicago and Milwaukee. She is a working-class girl. Her mother is a Serbian immigrant; her father, a Puerto Rican who has abandoned his family. One night, Lee’s father, a judge, comes home late, bringing a group of other leading citizens with him. They sit in the judge’s study, and, through open windows, Lee eavesdrops on their discussion, which concerns “an attack” on Magda, who was discovered by the school janitor in a small room near the gym. The members of “The Committee,” as Lee refers to six of the eight men in his father’s study, have convened to decide how to handle the matter. Because Magda can’t or won’t talk, her assailant remains at large. But the Committee is somewhat more concerned about the town’s image, and that’s why it’s Alfred Swan, the publisher of the local newspaper, who is under more pressure than the chief of police. The other men in the study want Alfred to treat the story as blandly as possible, so as not to attract the lurid interest of the Chicago papers. This is precisely what Alfred does, but, needled into cussedness, he puts up a fight. 

There are eight people in this room, Alfred said. We all know the details of this crime, or most of the details. I’m sure the chief has withheld the worst of them. When this meeting is over some of us will go home and tell our wives, of course swearing them to silence. And as surely as the day will dawn, this story will be all over town by close of business tomorrow. The first question will be: Who’s the victim? The second will be: Who’s the suspect? And the third will be: Why haven’t I read about it in Alfred Swan’s newspaper? What’s the World covering up? That bastard Swan, you can never trust him. Swan only prints what suits him. Fuck him, they’ll say. Fuck Alfred Swan and his newspaper. I’m canceling my subscription. 

I remembered how startled I was. I Had never heard that word used in our house. Occasionally, my father allowed himself a “goddamn” and, in extremis, “shit,” and never within my mother’s hearing. Ungentlemanly behavior, my father said. The language of truck drivers. 

The discussion remains wilfully oblique. What exactly happened to Magda is left to the imagination. What interests Lee, in any case, is the way in which the men handle the matter — this is how things are done. Something of an old soul, he is not panting for sordid details but, on the contrary, registering how much can be accomplished without their DIsclosure. 

Near the end of the book — where a climax might be in a more conventional book — Magda re-enters Lee’s life. She has become a school teacher in St Louis, but she has not really recovered from the rape. The congruence of her own amnesia and the town’s desire to put the matter aside (in the absence of a likely suspect) have plastered over the event, but the plaster is as obtrusive as a representation of the rape would be. It is the absent thing that everyone is aware of. Magda still recalls nothing of what happened, and has come back to the town in hopes of finding out something about what happened to her. But there is little for her to learn. With Lee she is polite, but an underlying implacability shows through. Lee is at a loss to know what Magda needs to hear, and he tells her that he hopes that he hasn’t upset her. Her response is astringent: “I’m always upset. It’s how I live.” We are left with no sense of whom to blame for the terrible thing that has happened to Magda. Because, as I say, the scene occupies the real estate of a climax, well-trained readers will shudder to think that, at the last minute, Lee himself is going to be unmasked as the rapist. Of course no such thing happens, but the anxiety is of a piece with the clouds of unknowing in which Magda’s story is immured. 

Between overhearing his father and the other men discuss Magda’s rape, and actually discussing it with her years later, Lee lives through many interesting chapters that have nothing to do with Magda. In fact, they have nothing to do with the carefully reconstructed lake shore town in which Lee grew up. After the rape, Lee’s mother persuades the judge to move to Chicago’s North Shore. For a reason that is actually hard to guess, Lee is sent to a boarding school to the west of the city, where we see him in the course of another one of this novel’s stories — I’ll come back to it in a moment — after which he goes to the University of Chicago and takes up sculpting blocks of marble in an unsafe neighborhood near Hyde Park. He falls in love with his roommate’s girlfriend after the roommate returns to his native London. After graduation, Lee has a successful first sale of his sculptures, and he marries Laura as soon as her mother pulls out of pneumonia. A series of sweet honeymoon snapshots ensue, taken in Naples and Florence. Only after all of this does Magda reappear, and she has absolutely nothing to do with any of it. 

Why should I care? As I say, my memory is rewriting the book to suit my sense of its stories — what it has to tell me. The prep school story that I mentioned a moment ago is a football story. Although not a big boy, Lee is a fast and agile runner, but his school’s team is so demoralized that it loses sixteen games in a row. We learn this in the first of the story’s twp scenes, which takes place in the office of a departing headmaster. Lee asks that a few hundred dollars be budgeted for team training; he has organized a football camp for the month of August at a teammate’s aunt’s estate in Wisconsin. The conversation ranges far and wide from this petition, however, and it seems inexplicable that Lee would wait until the last minute to show himself to a man whom he seems to admire. We become aware that the author is stretching the scene in order to show Lee to us. An air of implausibility gathers in the corners of the headmasters office. 

The second scene takes place after the last game of the following football season, which Lee and his team have just won. Lee lingers on the field, savoring a victory that
he can already feel slipping into the past. His attention is drawn to a Cadillac limousine idling in the trees beyond the goalpost. The powerfully-built old man sitting in the limousine turns out to be Tommy Ogden, about whom I’m tempted to say nothing. Tommy, an eccentric railroad heir, is the founder of the school — he grew up in the house that became Ogden Hall School for Boys — but he is so reclusive that half the students doubt that he even exists. We know all about him, though, because it is his story that opens Rodin’s Debutante; he is in fact the connection between the sculpture of the title and Lee’s career. Tommy has (of course) supplied the funding for the football camp; at Christmas, he will send silver cups from Tiffany to each of the boys on the team — anonymously. Only Lee gets to meet him, and Lee will not mention meeting him until the last page of the novel, when he surveys the burning ruins of Ogden Hall — it is now 1963 — with the other hero of his team, a boy named Hopkins who has grown into a rather sour and unpleasant commodities broker. 

It is all very well to say that Ward Just is an old man with an old man’s license to write whatever pleases him. It seems ungallant to see in Rodin’s Debutante‘s strange proporitions a “falling off” or a disappointment. In the Book Review, Steven Heighton all but hails the novel as a groundbreaking re-invention of the coming-of-age form. In Lee Goodell and his father, the judge, Just has created two very attractive, very American figures, and, in Tommy Ogden, an unusual but entirely believable one. In the background, there is Chicago, a tough town whose bookkeeping, however, is pristine, because its corruption comes at fixed prices. I tried thinking of Rodin’s Debutante as a novel “about Chicago,” but that’s just what it isn’t; it’s a novel about men who manage somehow to stay out of Chicago, even if they live in it. Chicago, one fears, is for truckdrivers. 

Daily Office: Matins
Wild, Wild East
Wedmesdau. 30 March 2011

Wednesday, March 30th, 2011

Under the direction of Wellington Chen, a new business development district, which hopes to have city authorization sometime this summer, has been formed in Chinatown. One board member calls the project “long overdue.” Indeed, tourism in Chinatown has never recovered to pre 9/11 levels (Chinatown lies in a district adjacent to the site of the destroyed World Trade Center). But change in Chinatown is harder work than it is elsewhere in an already difficult city.

Ownership is the crux of the problem. Wellington Chen, the executive director of the coming business district, now called the Chinatown Partnership, said buildings of all descriptions, including side-street tenements, are owned by “associations” of Chinese business people as well as families, many of whom have owned all or part of a building for generations. Getting all parties to agree to a sale would be nearly impossible, he said, even if all the owners could be located. Assembling multiple contiguous parcels for new construction, like three or more tenement buildings, would be extremely difficult.

“Chinatown is the Wild, Wild West when it comes to finding out who the building owners are,” said Yvonne Chang, a broker with the Kaufman Organization who is marketing leases at a two-story building at 257 Canal Street.

Landmark status on some buildings is another obstacle to development, as is the significant number of rent-controlled and rent-stabilized housing units in the area. Mr. Chen said about 4,200 of the 5,000 apartments in the neighborhood are regulated. Ousting tenants in any of the regulated buildings is out of the question, even though some building owners would like to see them go so they could raise the rent.

Chinese owners also prefer to do business within the Chinese community, another factor that gets in the way of development. “They won’t go far past who they know, and they know everybody,” Ms. Chang said. “They market among themselves.”

We like the air of paradox in Ms Chang’s comment.

Daily Office: Vespers
Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Tuesday, March 29th, 2011

Former butler to “Lady Astor” [sic!] Christopher Ely irons one of reporter Michael Wilson’s shirts. You can sign up for Mr Ely’s class at the French Culinary Institute. The question, though, is: do you take the class yourself, or do you send your butler?

Mr. Ely took one of this reporter’s wrinkled shirts and, before he even plugged in the iron, examined a tag in the shirt with a little symbol of an iron with three dots inside. That indicates how much steam to use.

First, he ironed the inside, or back, of the collar, loath to leave one of those thin creases so commonly seen after a shirt’s trip to the cleaner’s. “That’s bad form,” he said, one of many criticisms he has for dry cleaners, who he said are a crutch for New Yorkers and who he flatly accused of ruining clothes. “The most important thing is your collar.”

Next was the button-hole strip of double fabric, and then the button side, face down. “The trick with the buttons, if you want them to lie flat, you lay them on a towel,” he said. The buttons sank into the plush towel, leaving little indentations.

Next, he ironed the tricky shoulder sections, spread over the pointed tip of his board. The iron, hefty in his hand, did more of its share of the work than its $9.99 cousins found in many apartments, with Mr. Ely constantly tugging at the fabric to keep it tight. The best ironing situation, he said, involves plugging in the iron from the ceiling, so the cord stays out of the way.

He paused to lightly spray the shirt from a water bottle. He wears Brooks Brothers shirts, perfect but for the six little pleats — about five too many for Mr. Ely — that adorn the cuffs.

After ironing the cuffs and sleeves, he finished with the front-left panel, the back and the front right. He buttoned and folded the shirt into a tight square that would have looked at home on a department store shelf.

It took about 20 minutes. And it probably looked better than the ironed shirts of a lot of people who pay other people to iron their shirts. And he hopes those people send him their employees.

The Editor remembers following the same procedure, but he can’t believe that he ever spent twenty minutes on a single shirt.

Home Movies:
Mathilde and Clara, in Anton Corbijn’s The American

Tuesday, March 29th, 2011

One of my favorite movies from last year was Anton Corbijn’s The American, starring George Clooney and a lot of Italian scenery reminiscent of the Spanish locations used by Sergio Leone in his famous Spaghetti Westerns. Who knew? I thought that The American was an update of the classic European “existentialist” anti-drama of the 1960s, full of brooding silence, unexplained plot points, and disaffected fatalism. It turns out that Corbijn was updating the classic European Western of the 1960s, full of — well, I guess it comes to the same thing. The director tells us, in the running commentary that accompanies the DVD, that he wanted to call the film “Il Americano,” which, he notes, is incorrect Italian — it’s what the American, Jack (George Clooney) calls himself, before a neighbor corrects him (“L’Americano”) All this to highlight the Americanness of an originally British character, drawn from a British novel, Martin Booth’s A Very Private Gentleman.

As you can probably tell, I’ve been on a jag with this film, so it was inevitable that I would listen to the commentary eventually, no matter how bad it was. Corbijn’s commentary isn’t bad, exactly, but it is fairly idle, full of compliments for the actors playing the minor roles and generous lashings of admiration for the big star. One absolutely crucial bit of mystification was cleared up; I’d always thought that it is Pavel (Johan Leysen) who kills Mathilde (Thekla Reuten, shown above). I couldn’t figure out why Pavel did such a thing, but process of elimination ruled out other explanations. What would never have occurred to me, because I’m ignorant about guns, is that Jack sabotages the weapon that Mathilde has commissioned, so that it backfires, killing the shooter instead of the target. Well, it was nice to have that cleared up! But the more Corbijn went on about this and that, the more surprised I was that he had nothing to say about the extraordinary contrast between the film’s two big female roles. Who could be less like Mathilde than Clara (Violante Placido, shown below), the prostitute with whom Jack falls in love?

Indeed, I’m writing this in hopes of banishing Ms Reuten’s image from my mind’s eye, or at least turning down the intensity of her presence. I have never seen an actress radiate  the deadly erotic allure that Puccini’s music imputes to Turandot. She captures everything that is dark and dangerous and “European” about The American. Her Mathilde is everything that a man dreads in a woman. Smart and self-possessed, she exudes doubt that the men with whom she has to deal will be up to her mark. In the scene from which I’ve taken Ms Reuten’s image, Mathilde is explaining what kind of a weapon she wants Jack to make. She speaks softly but briskly, like a fairy-tale princess laying down cruel conditions for the hero’s ordeal. Jack’s responses are evidently satisfactory, but it’s obvious that the effort of satisfying her is wearing him down. She actually asks him, “Can you do it?” Later, we will see Mathilde in a knit white dress with a prim turtleneck collar that nevertheless trumpets the physical endowments that it drapes. Mathilde would be a terrible tease, if you imagined for a moment that she gave a damn. She may, in fact, give a damn, but you don’t want to dwell on what that might be like. In any case, you don’t get to see any of her naughty bits.

Clara, on the other hand, is quite often gorgeously naked. The first thing she does, when Jack takes her for a picnic, is pull off her top and beckon him to join her in the stream. Corbijn gives the audience plenty of opportunity to develop an appreciation of the beauty of Ms Placido’s breasts; it might be going too far to claim that they never upstage her, but in any case they do nothing to check our sense that Clara is a genuine ingénue, a girl who has fallen for Jack and who is ready to give him whatever she has. She wants to enjoy him, and she wants him to enjoy her. When she sallies with him, in the scene that I’ve clipped, about meeting for dinner at “the usual place” — the phrase just slipped out of Jack, but of course their regular place is the bordello, so he can’t mean what he said — her expression is warm and playful. There is nothing challenging about Clara, and by the end of the story Jack can’t believe his good luck in finding her. Unfortunately, by then, he’s also dying.  

In the commentary, Anton Corbijn speaks of Ms Reuten’s wigs. Wigs never crossed my mind, either. I noticed well enough that in the course of her three appearances in the story, Mathilde’s hair goes from ironed-straight to Medusa-permed, with a wavy intermediate coiffure for her knit-dress scene that is at ironic odds with her mission at the moment, which is testing a rifle in a deserted field. (In that episode, she arrives and departs on a sad little train that her presence makes sinister into the bargain.) But I didn’t see anything that a good stylist couldn’t arrange. Who needs wigs? The artifice in Mathilde’s character is bone-deep.  

Daily Office: Matins
The Obama Doctrine
Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Tuesday, March 29th, 2011

We applaud President Obama for the liberal pragmatism that informs our engagement with the coalition against Libyan tyrant Muammar el-Qaddafi.

Aaron David Miller, a State Department Middle East peace negotiator during the Clinton administration, said Mr. Obama described a doctrine that, in essence, can be boiled to this: “If we can, if there’s a moral case, if we have allies, and if we can transition out and not get stuck, we’ll move to help. The Obama doctrine is the ‘hedge your bets and make sure you have a way out’ doctrine. He learned from Afghanistan and Iraq.”

Daily Office: Vespers
Radio Active
Monday, 28 March 2011

Monday, March 28th, 2011

The nuclear-power industry isn’t the only one that is up for a re-think in the wake of the Tohoku earthquake.

Among the casualties of the magnitude 9.0 earthquake on March 11 were modern communications networks, which proved surprisingly vulnerable. Millions of people in eastern and northern Japan, including Tokyo, lost some or all cellphone service. A total of 1.3 million land lines and fiber-optic links also went dead.

While those interruptions pale in comparison to the human tragedy of the earthquake and tsunami — 27,000 people are dead or missing — the fragility of modern communications has emerged as one of the catastrophe’s sobering lessons.

In a technology-crazed nation where many people were glued to cellphones and accustomed to the Internet’s nearly instantaneous access to information, being cut off has proved disorienting and frightening. Many local governments in the hardest-hit areas, desperate to reach residents with important emergency information, have reached into the past for more tried-and-true means of communication, including radios, newspapers and even human messengers.

Jane Eyre

Monday, March 28th, 2011

Several years ago, I decided to give Jane Eyre a try. It was an effort. When Jane finally made her way to Thornfield Hall, I set the book down. There seemed to be nothing in it for an adult. I neither liked or disliked Jane, but the landscape oppressed me. Charlotte Brontë’s Yorkshire seemed no closer to London than New South Wales. The writing was hard going. 

The chamber looked such a bright little place to me as the sun shone in between the gay blue chintz window curtains, showing papered wals and a carpeted floor, so unlike the bare planks and stained plaster of Lowood that my spirits rose at the view. Externals have a great effect on the young: I thought that a fairer era of life was beginning for me, one that was to have its flowers and pleasures, as well as its thorns and toils. My faculties, nursed by the change of scene, the new field offered to hope, seemed all astir. I cannot precisely define what they expected, but it was something pleasant: not perhaps that day or that month, but at an indefinite future period. 

This sort of thing threatened to stretch into some other indefinite future period. Also, I thought that I knew what was going to happen next. So, midway through Chapter XI, I stopped, with uncharacteristic deliberateness, reading. 

Now that I’ve seen Cary Fukunaga’s adaptation, though, I’m tempted to go back and give the book another go. I shall now at least have a face for Jane. Mia Wasikowska. who hails from a town not far from New South Wales and who looks just about old enough to be reading Jane Eyre for the first time — she is in fact 21 — has discovered somewhere a trunk full of old actress tricks, and she blazes through the movie with a yearning self-possession that Olivia de Havilland might be proud of. Of course she trails none of the musky glamour of the old stars; she’s actually credible as a plain girl who has been kept down by circumstances. But her self-respect is never priggish or off-putting, and you don’t doubt for an instant that Rochester would fall in love with her. It is frightening to watch a slip of a girl exercise such formidable powers of magnetism. 

The screenplay, by Moira Buffini, is intelligently laid out. It begins with Jane’s flight across the moors and her refuge with the Rivers. This has the effect of turning down the melodrama a few notches. A poor girl huddles in the elements, her plight awful enough but yet unknown. When bits of this episode are reprised in their rightful narrative order, we understand what Jane is running from, but we’ve already seen what she’s going to find at the end of her ordeal. Jane’s childhood miseries — retailed with a welcome briskness and acted with a surprising power by Amelia Clarkson — are thus enfolded in the adult Jane’s drama. (And how adult Jane is! There is a wonderful moment in a garden when Jane steals a kiss from Rochester with the sudden darting of her neck, while at the same time her eyes acknowledge her right to it. Never has a romantic heroine been so free of gauzy uncertainty, or better known her own mind.) 

Ms Wasikowska shines the more brightly for the concern shown by the filmmakers to recall that hers in the leading part. Charlotte Brontë wrote no Edward Rochester. We are not invited to share in Jane’s mooning attraction to her employer, who in Michael Fassbender’s spirited but light-handed performance is not a monument of brooding ferocity. Mr Fassbender’s hero is brittle and caustic but not suffocating; as a younger and more attractive man, moreover, than a close reading of the novel would seem to allow, he presents Jane with less to feel sorry for and more to be drawn to. Judi Dench does her part as well, flustering about sweetly as if she had spent her entire career in supporting roles. Her reward is to recite the ostler’s narration at the end, recounting the catastrophe that frees Rochester from his grim marriage. 

I always thought that “Reader, I married him” was the last line of the book. It’s the first line of the concluding chapter, is what it is. It’s a thrilling line, pushing up as it does against the very limit of the pretense that a real Jane Eyre has been setting forth her life’s story; never has a happy ending been more succinctly encapsulated. It’s a pity that Ms Buffini couldn’t see her way to incorporating it in her screenplay. In every serious regard, however, this Jane Eyre is one of the finest adaptations of a literary classic that I’ve ever seen, and I hope that I’m not the only one that it sends back to the original.

Daily Office: Matins
Identity Ghouls
Monday, 28 March 2011

Monday, March 28th, 2011

Ray Madoff rails against a particularly ghoulish line of traffic in the intellectual property racket: making money from the public images of dead people. Trademarking the deceased is obscene.

Contrary to what the owners of these identities claim, a right of publicity that continues after death does little to protect the reputations of the deceased. American law, unlike that in much of Europe, explicitly and uniformly provides that reputational protections — including libel and slander and the right of privacy — all end at death. The expansion of the right of publicity does nothing to change this.

Instead, it has afforded riches to the heirs of the dead and the companies that represent them. Einstein’s estate has generated $76 million in the last five years. But the dead themselves — particularly those who would have preferred to avoid being marketed as a commodity — may not be so well served.

While people can provide for the postmortem exploitation of their identities, there is no legal mechanism by which they can prevent it. It is a basic tenet of wills law that a person cannot order the destruction of a valuable property interest. Therefore, if Parks had written in her will that she did not want her identity to be marketed, there is a good chance that a court would not enforce those wishes.

We take this occasion to restate our position on intellectual property, which is that it cannot be sold. If you invent something, you can license your idea, but it remains inalienably yours. Your heirs can inherit the right to profit by it (for a limited tiime) but not the right to control its use.

Daily Office
Grand Hours
March 2011: Fourth Week

Saturday, March 26th, 2011


¶ At 3 Quarks Daily, Jen Paton writes about the irony of distance — what we used to call “dramatic irony,” wherein the audience at a play knows something that the characters don’t — as a feature of foreign news reporting in the US, and how The Daily Show “‘reproduces, rather than interrogates’ the tropes of ‘conventional news journalism’.” ¶ We agree with Chris Mooney: OpEd pages ought not to be sanctuaries for anti-scientific fantasy. Opinion cannot be stretched to protect outright misinformation, such as the “array of misleading claims” advanced against solid climate science by Jason Lewis in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. (; via The Intersection)


¶ At BBC News, Ian Yongs looks at British arts funding from three perspectives; what they have in common is considerably reduced contributions from the government. It’s no surprise that the tenants of handsome buildings with plenty of naming rights will do better than scruffy anti-establishment theatre companies. Lord Aldington’s suggestion that philanthropists benefit organizations with whom they share “aspirations” takes us right back to the Bourbons! (via Arts Journal) ¶ Simon Heffer, a movie critic who doesn’t get the theatre, writes a nice appreciation of Terence Rattigan, the stiff-upper-lip dramatist whose career took a nosedive when John Osborne & Co hit the West End in 1956, but who won an Academy Award for the Separate Tables screenplay. (Telegraph) ¶ The end of Dan Callahan’s appreciation of Elizabeth Taylor caught our eye. Referring to the magic between Taylor and Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun, Callahan writes, “that’s the way that any consideration of Elizabeth Taylor should end, too, at the height of her beauty, in thrall to a male beauty of equal standing, reaching out to him and to us.” (L)


¶ Frédéric Filloux captures the awful truth about the paywall at the Times: “Experimenting requires humility, agility, ability to learn from mistakes. Let’s admit it: such traits are in short supply in century-old news organizations that – until recently – thrived on their unchallenged confidence.” (Monday Note) ¶ Since we did indeed miss “The Poindexter Theory” when Joshua Brown ran it the first time, we’re grateful for the re-run. How did economists ever get to be so focal? It must have been the Cold War, which put capitalism right up there with nuclear fission as an vital phenomenon that needed to be understood and controlled. (The Reformed Broker) ¶ Further evidence of the duality of the United States, home of the home free and also of the chumps: everything that Simon Johnson has to say about the bank-dividend handout is just so much plain good sense, but bankers will be allowed to junk up on leverage all over again. (The Baseline Scenario)


¶ No Surprise Department: middle schoolers with laptops perform better at math, and they write better, too. Since 2001, Maine has spent $18 million per year making sure that every seventh- and eighth-grader has a laptop. The results in Freeport (home of LL Bean) are pretty staggering: a maths-test pass rate jumped from 50% to 91% during the first eight years of the program. (GOOD) ¶ Never mind the title, “Does the Universe Need God?” This essay by Sean Carroll ends with one of the finest expressions of what science is all about that we’ve ever come across.

None of this amounts to a “proof” that God doesn’t exist, of course. Such a proof is not forthcoming; science isn’t in the business of proving things. Rather, science judges the merits of competing models in terms of their simplicity, clarity, comprehensiveness, and fit to the data. Unsuccessful theories are never disproven, as we can always concoct elaborate schemes to save the phenomena; they just fade away as better theories gain acceptance. Attempting to explain the natural world by appealing to God is, by scientific standards, not a very successful theory. The fact that we humans have been able to understand so much about how the natural world works, in our incredibly limited region of space over a remarkably short period of time, is a triumph of the human spirit, one in which we can all be justifiably proud.

¶ David McRaney writes an excellent essay on the sunk-cost fallacy, with some intriguing observations about Farmville, at You Are Not So Smart.

Sunk costs drive wars, push up prices in auctions and keep failed political policies alive. The fallacy makes you finish the meal when you are already full. It fills your home with things you no longer want or use. Every garage sale is a funeral for someone’s sunk costs.


¶ Farhad Manjoo asks about the future of the Internet in the age of smartphone apps. We don’t know what to make of his preliminary conclusions, but we keep our eye on the question, because it seems to us that apps are yet another door closed on interconnectedness. (Slate; via Arts Journal) ¶ At The Hairpin, Edith Zimmerman shares her recipe for gettting to like any foodstuff, no matter how revolting initially. The secret seems to be ingesting in public. ¶ Dave Bry is now apologizing to kids he beat up on when he was a kid himself. Not for the squeamish! Prospective parents may wonder how they can bring children into such a world. We were relieved that no one ever made us eat grass. (The Awl)


¶ An excellent diagnosis of the American headache that turmoil in the Middle East might turn into a migraine, by Robert Kaplan. Never mind Libya; the viability of Saudi Arabia is the major perplex. Kaplan presents China as a “free rider”; it certainly has a freer hand than our own haphazardly tied ones.  (WSJ; via Real Clear World) ¶ What the so-called “Turkish model” of Islamic normalization looks like to the secularist opposition: “Turkey’s new ‘old Kemalists’,” by Soner ÇaÄŸaptay in Hürriyet.  ¶ The Epicurean Dealmaker reflects on the pleasant fluidity of social life as an expatriate, free of the local “status dance.”


¶ Roxane Gay’s celebrated essay on self-publishing, which ought to have been titled, simply, “Don’t.” (HTMLGiant)

If you believe in your writing enough to invest that kind of money, I wonder why you don’t believe in your writing enough to pursue more traditional alternatives or, in the face of rejection, revise your work such that it will, eventually be published.

In the old days, when a book was still an object invested with status, self-publishing embodied a measure of authority that might persuade a stranger to read a book. Those days are over. But we agree with self-publisher Mary Maddox that there is an awful lot of caprice in the land of agents and editors. ¶ Michael Bourne recalls the thrill of reading Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as a teenager. Forty years after Hunter S Thompson and Oscar Zeta Acosta drove from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, what does the book have to tell us? How the Sixties died, is what. (The Millions) ¶ J R Lennon’s advice for getting people to notice your books deserves a hat tip: if you’re going to post about your work at Facebook, post your work, not an announcement about it or a report on how well it’s selling. (Ward Six)


¶ Jim Emerson writes about the old days, when people just went to the movies at any old time, and left when they got to the point where “this is where we came in.” He doesn’t remember them himself however. We don’t, either, although we remember hearing the grownups speak of having done so. Of course we were always tuning in to the middle of movies on television. (Scanners) ¶ Kevin Nguyen considers “lifelogging” — making a digital record of everything. Ah! to be young! Imagine spending a week at a memory spa, where your personal recollections were subjected to correction by implacable files. (The Bygone Bureau)

Have a Look

¶ More great book covers from Coralie Bickford-Smith. (@ Design Sponge) ¶ Appliance anatomy with Brittny Badger (@ GOOD) ¶ My Bad Parent (via MetaFilter) ¶ A real, live Turing machine. (New Scientist)


¶ Coke Talk (via MetaFilter) ¶ Seven Must-Read Books About Music (Brain Pickings)

Daily Office: Vespers
Eyes Wide Open
Friday, 25 March 2011

Friday, March 25th, 2011

Floyd Norris, writing about the trial of Kerry Killinger and other WaMu executives doesn’t come out and say that the Crash of 2008 was the result of a mad game of musical chairs, but that’s what his column led us to conclude. The pursuit of short-term gains appears to have hidden long-term consequences in plain sight.

What went wrong? The chief executive, Kerry K. Killinger, talked about a bubble but was also convinced that Wall Street would reward the bank for taking on more risk. He kept on doing so, amassing what proved to be an almost unbelievably bad book of mortgage loans. Nothing was done about the office where fraud seemed rampant

The regulators “on the ground” saw problems, as James G. Vanasek, the bank’s former chief risk officer, told me, but the ones in Washington saw their job as protecting a “client” and took no effective action. The bank promised change, but did not deliver. It installed programs to spot fraud, and then failed to use them. The board told management to fix problems but never followed up.

Reading Note:
My Korean Deli
by Ben Ryder Howe

Friday, March 25th, 2011

Ben Ryder Howe packs his memoir, My Korean Deli: Risking It All For a Convenience Store, with a double whammy. There is the up-front story indicated in the title. An underachieving egghead is roped into running a convenience store in Brooklyn that his Korean-American wife, a successful but burned out corporate lawyer, buys as a way of “giving back” to her mother, a formidable can-do lady by the unlikely name of Kay. Our hero is thereby taken completely out of his element.

Monday is always the worst day at the store. No one buys anything. They stay at home eating leftovers, I guess, of maybe they dine out, or maybe they just starve themselves. It’s one of the mysteries of the convenience store business, like the phenomenon of customer waves, whereby the store goes completely dead for a few minutes — you can hear the cockroaches scurrying — and then all of a sudden twenty customers walk in at the same time, as if they’d been conspiring outside on the sidewalk, huddling in the manner of a football tgeam, with formations and schemes and plans of attack to makee sure that not one night will ever go buy when I do not commit a huge pressure-induced mistake.

This is a familiar story,  although one that Howe tells extremely well. A clueless WASP is thrown into an exotic milieu in which little of his extensive training for life among the entitled is of any use.  The ghost of Evelyn Waugh smiles over this sort of story, and by attending to his example (the stark display of humiliation in clear but understated prose; plenty of nasty surprises; the conviction that life is more ridiculous than tragic), a talented and persevering writer can be sure of producing a good read. Howe does the job about as well as it has ever been done. My Korean Deli is as hugely entertaining as any funny book, fact or fiction, that I can think of.

But there is another story here, and if its appeal is much narrower than the one in the foreground, the readers to whom it will appeal are the readers who care about literary distinction. Howe is wise not to tell it at any length; rather, he slips in occasional sketches of illustrative scenes. George Plimpton, late founder and editor of The Paris Review, appears in each of these sketches, at least until he dies in his sleep. Howe was a senior editor at The Paris Review during Plimpton’s last years, and it is clear from what he tells us that it would not have been difficult to whip up a Waughian spoof of the enterprise. Here is Plimpton addressing his staff after a fall, tacitly pointing out that the Review will be in a pickle without him.

The staff nods. We’ve hear this speech before. After the bus-on-York-Avenue scenario — in case that wasn’t vivid enough — he’d come up with a half-dozen more. (“I could be crushed by a falling bridge. I could fall into the polar bear den at the Central Park Zoo. I could be mortally wounded in a freak trampoline accident.”) Talking this way revealed that even George worried about death and, in particular, the future, which is only natural in a seventy-five-year-old. It wasn’t quite as morbid as it sounds, however: part of him, the bon vivant, the seeker of fun, clearly looked forward to adding death to his repertoire of experiences and the stories he would be able to tell about it afterward.

You have to read this twice to appreciate the sting. Plimpton is already a figure of fun — likeable but a bit fatuous — without the snark about his repertoire of experiences; and yet you suspect that Howe is absolutely right; it takes the place, in a more interesting way, of planning one’s own funeral. The remark skewers Plimpton — but with a silver spear.

Even better is a frightful encounter at a publicity party. Howe has screwed up, in a sort-of way, and the mistake is going to cost the magazine $10,000 — very big money on the Review‘s shoestring budget. Howe is advised to stand back while a colleague tells Plimpton what has happened.

Luckily, the balcony is where the bar is. After downing two quick cocktails, I watch as Elizabeth gradually works her way through the library’s vaulted hall and snags George’s attention. He seems delighted to see her — Ha! He’s in a good mood. He listens intently, eyes narrowed, not saying a word as Elizabeth lays out the situation. Then his face seems to darken, and his features seem to elongate, and before my eyes George morphs into a grotesque hawklike bird with a fierce brow and an angry beak. Oh dear. He’s scanning the room for a face — mine, presumably; Elizabeth must have told him I’m here — and it occurs to me that I shouldn’t be spying on him like this. I look again: that angry beak is now mouthing the words (I can see it clearly from across the room) “Where is he? WHERE IS HE? I want to talk to him now.”

This is a view of the affable amateur that hasn’t been widely seen — but it is part of a considered, humane, and even compassionate deconstruction of the literary playboy. Later, Plimpton will confess to Howe that he worries about being a fraud, because he actually hates performing in front of other people; his famously easygoing charm is an act, not insincere so much as professional. (Presumably, these misgivings explain why Plimpton died without completing his own memoirs.) Howe has opened himself to the charge of score-settling, but I’m persuaded to take a more charitable view.

Autobiographically, My Korean Deli tells a story of Bildung by attrition. “First came the disassembly of the self, the softening up of an already tenuous psyche. Then came exposure to values … that were the opposite of those I grew up with.” The result is a confident father who has arrived at manhood without the benefit of signs and wonders. There is a point at which Howe could easily have connected The Paris Review to the other things that he needed to outgrow, but I think that he’s too generous to do that. He is frank about losing his editing job along with all the other survivors of the Plimpton régime; wisdom accrued behind the counter of a mini-mart at the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Hoyt Street (easily found with Google maps, by the way) did nothing to prompt his departure from the magazine. But he clearly sees the improvisational nature of George Plimpton’s operating system as the byproduct of arrested development. Perhaps the point will be made more explicitly in the movie adaptation, which I hope is already in the works. One with plenty of voice-over narration taken straight from Howe’s splendid prose.  

Daily Office: Matins
The Business of Making Money
Friday, 25 March 2011

Friday, March 25th, 2011

No clearer demonstration of American wrongheadedness can be made: “GE’s Strategies Let It Avoid Taxes Altogether.” That wrongheadedness extends right to the Times editor who approved the title of David Kocieniewski’s report; because of course it is Congressional cooperation that cuts the mammoth corporation’s tax bill.

The assortment of tax breaks G.E. has won in Washington has provided a significant short-term gain for the company’s executives and shareholders. While the financial crisis led G.E. to post a loss in the United States in 2009, regulatory filings show that in the last five years, G.E. has accumulated $26 billion in American profits, and received a net tax benefit from the I.R.S. of $4.1 billion.

But critics say the use of so many shelters amounts to corporate welfare, allowing G.E. not just to avoid taxes on profitable overseas lending but also to amass tax credits and write-offs that can be used to reduce taxes on billions of dollars of profit from domestic manufacturing. They say that the assertive tax avoidance of multinationals like G.E. not only shortchanges the Treasury, but also harms the economy by discouraging investment and hiring in the United States.

“In a rational system, a corporation’s tax department would be there to make sure a company complied with the law,” said Len Burman, a former Treasury official who now is a scholar at the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. “But in our system, there are corporations that view their tax departments as a profit center, and the effects on public policy can be negative.”

This isn’t just inequitable; it’s bad for business — unless, of course, you’re in the businss of making money.

Daily Office: Vespers
The Real Danger
Thursday, 24 March 2011

Thursday, March 24th, 2011

Frank von Hippel reminds us that what’s really dangerous about nuclear power plants is a factor located hundreds if not thousands of miles from any reactor: regulatory capture.

Therefore, perhaps the most important thing to do in light of the Fukushima disaster is to change the industry-regulator relationship. It has become customary for administrations not to nominate, and the Senate not to confirm, commissioners whom the industry regards as “anti-nuclear” — which includes anyone who has expressed any criticism whatsoever of industry practices. The commission has an excellent staff; what it needs is more aggressive political leadership.

Fukushima also shows why we need to develop reactors that are more inherently safe. Almost all the world’s power reactors, including those at Fukushima, are descended from the much smaller reactors developed in the 1950s by the United States for submarines. As we saw in the Fukushima accident, they depend on pumps to keep them from catastrophic failure, a major weak point. New designs less dependent on pumps have been developed, but there has not yet been enough research to make certain that they would work effectively

We need a regulatory outlook that would prioritize research into those alterrnate designs!

Smoked Trout Salad (With Preamble)

Thursday, March 24th, 2011

The easiest thing about cooking is the actual cooking. You find a recipe and follow it; you learn, from experience or from teachers, how to navigate the difficult bits; you figure out how to get a complete meal on the table, with everything served as hot or cold as it ought to be, and at the right time, too. You put in a lot of hours acquiring all this experience, and then, voilà, cooking is no big deal. The cooking itself, I mean. 

The hard part is finding out where cooking fits in your life. Perhaps you’re a professional — that’s one simple answer. Here are some others: Perhaps you’re a weekend chef, or someone who does the occasional feast, whether a carefully-planned dégustation involving days of planning before a single egg is cracked, or a groaning board assemblage of hearty dishes that you can prepare without opening a cookbook. Maybe you’re a housewife who’s got the time, energy, and skill to feed your family interesting fare every day. Maybe you’re a bachelor who only cooks for girlfriends, with a repertoire of recipes for two that involve expensive ingredients. (Word to the wise, guys: this works.) 

Maybe you’re none of the above. 

Maybe you’re the husband of a securities lawyer whose hours are wildly unpredictable — hers, that is. Your own hours are yours to do with as you see fit, which is great except for the cooking part. When cooking is not conditional — when it is not the invariable response to a certain signal (showing up for work at a restaurant, seeing that it’s five o’clock in the afternoon, planning a special night) — it’s often difficult to get going. And of all the things that we do, eating is probably the least forgiving if you’re one of those spirits who likes to wait until you’re in the mood. Wait until you’re in the mood to cook, and you’re probably already too hungry to wait for anything to cook. 

All I have to say today is that I haven’t found where cooking fits in my life. I know only that I have to find a place for it. I’ve tried giving it up, and I’ve tried making it regular. Neither campaign was successful. 

One thing that helps, though, is having a thick sheaf of varied recipes, and I’m happy to have just added a new one to mine. Let me tell you about it. 

The other day, seeking to offset the richness of a richly-sauced chicken sauté, I worked up a simple salad of six ingredients, all but five of which are staples. I cut up half of a smoked, fileted trout into bite-size pieces, and tossed them with cut up sun-dried tomatoes, pitted and halved niçoise olives, and steamed haricots verts that I’d cut into short lengths. I drizzled olive oil over these ingredients and then tossed them all in the juice of a half lemon.Served shortly thereafter, the salad was a vivid array of vibrant flavors, harmonious but distinct. A few days later, the flavors had melded, and the salad had developed a pleasant taste that didn’t betray its constituents. So the same recipe yields two results, or more, depending entirely on timing. 

The next time I make this smoked trout salad, I’m going to combine the olives, the tomatoes, and the olive oil a day ahead of time, throwing in the fish about an hour or two before serving, and the beans and the lemon juice at the last minute. I seasoned the salad very lightly with salt and pepper, but gave dried herbs a pass. I might sprinkle some fresh tarragon, or perhaps some snipped chives, if I had them on hand.  I expect that the dish could be plumped up with white beans or some other canned variety.— always, however, bearing in mind that the simplicity of this salad is an illusion: three of its ingredients — the trout, the olives, and the sun-dried tomatoes — have complex flavors. (The smoked fish is doubly complex.) That’s why I think the haricots are essential: they’re green, they’re crunchy, and they’re bland. (And they’re green only if you’ve just steamed them; after a day in the fridge, they turn rather drab.) 

Last night, when we had the leftovers, I hit upon the perfect complement, a cheese soufflé. The light pillowy texture of the soufflé, with its understated backing of gruyère and parmesan, made a perfect contrast to the salad. It’s curious, but an equivalent omelette would be much, much heavier in this combination, even though you’d of course omit the cup of béchamel. 

Altogether, it was a meal that was easy to prepare, and comprised of a small number of ingredients (most of them, as I say, things that I had on hand); but it packed a lot of interest, and it left us feeling satisfied but not stuffed. 

You may be wondering where the recipe is. It’s in your head: you know better than I do what the ratio of fish to tomatoes to olives to beans out to be. You do! That much I do know.

Daily Office: Matins
Thursday, 24 March 2011

Thursday, March 24th, 2011

What Juan Zarate, a Bush Administration official, now calls “a deal with the devil” has not worked out “the way anyone would have wanted it to work out.” The deal in question was the normalization of trade relations with Libya in 2004. Calling Muammar el-Qaddafi “the devil” is excessively complimentary. The dictator is merely a garden-variety kleptocrat with more brawn than brains.

Daniel E. Karson, executive managing partner at Kroll, a risk-consulting firm, recalled in an interview that an international communications company he represented tried to enter the Libyan cellular phone market in 2007. From the outset, Libyan officials made it clear that the foreign company’s local business partner would have to be Muhammad Qaddafi, the eldest son of the Libyan ruler.

“We advised them they would have to go through Muhammad Qaddafi,” said Mr. Karson, who declined to identify the client. “This was not going to be done on the basis of, as they say in retail, price, quality and delivery.” Fearful of going into business with the Qaddafis, he said, the company made no investments in Libya.

Coca-Cola got caught in the middle of a fierce dispute between Muhammad Qaddafi and his brother Mutassim over control of a bottling plant the soda maker had opened in 2005, forcing it to shut down the plant for months amid armed confrontations, a diplomatic cable noted.

What’s really startling is Qaddafi’s attempt to shake down foreign corporations to pay for the Lockerbie settlement.

Daily Office: Vespers
Characteristic Panache
Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

A chain of marital events” has come to an end: Elizabeth Taylor has died, aged 79. From the end of Mel Gussow’s long and cheerful obituary:

Ms. Taylor was often seen as a caricature of herself, “full of no-nonsense shamelessness,” as Margo Jefferson wrote in The Times in 1998, adding, “Whether it’s about how she ages or what she wears, she has, bless her heart, made the principles of good and bad taste equally meaningless.”

Increasingly, Ms. Taylor divided her time between her charitable works (including various Israeli causes) and commercial enterprises, like a line of perfumes marketed under her name. She helped raise more than $100 million to fight AIDS.

[ snip ]

Married or single, sick or healthy, on screen or off, Ms. Taylor never lost her appetite for experience. Late in life, when she had one of many offers to write her memoirs, she refused, saying with characteristic panache, “Hell no, I’m still living my memoirs.”