Archive for May, 2011

Big Ideas:
Animals and Bons Bourgeois
Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Tuesday, May 31st, 2011

One of the sweeter jokes in Midnight in Paris has Woody Allen’s stand-in, played by Owen Wilson, suggest a movie idea to Luis Buñuel, on one of his nocturnal sojourns in the Paris of the Twenties. The guests at a fancy dinner party find, when it is over, that they cannot leave the dining room, and in their frustration and panic they emerge from their civilized personas as the “animals” that they really are. Buñuel shrugs and says he doesn’t get it. Why don’t they just leave? he mutters. We’re tickled because we know that when the real Buñuel made Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie in 1972, he improved on Gil Pender’s idea by backing up the problem: time after time, his six principals sit down to a meal that never appears. There are always reasons (sometimes surrealist reasons) why dinner can’t be served, and it is not the frustration of withheld dinners that exposes the bons bourgeois as animals — worse than animals, really. Gil’s idea, in short, is worked out cinematically from his one-line gag to a feature-length story. The elegance of Woody Allen’s joke is that it prompts the knowledgeable viewer to think about all of this. Buñuel’s shrugging incomprehension asks you to foresee that he will chew on the idea (for decades!) before finding a form for it that he does understand. And if you think that Gil Pender gets the credit for the idea by the time Buñuel is through with it, you haven’t been paying attention. 

Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie is of course about the supposed fraudulence of the bourgeoisie. The meal that is never served stands for the communion that the characters cannot achieve partly because they are actually engaged in narcotics trafficking but also because they are immured in the carapace of their social manners. Instead of food, they are served several courses of dreams, than which nothing could be more solitary. In the end, they have no reason to behave as properly as they do; in the movie’s terms, it doesn’t get them anywhere. The delivery of this lesson could not have been better-timed; by 1972, everyone, not just young people, was ready to consider the possibility that something was wrong with the bourgeois ideal — laughed at for nearly two centuries, no doubt, but no less eagerly pursued by those who could afford it. 

Nearly forty years later, it seems that many people still believe, paradoxically, that the bourgeois manner is both false and genuine. It’s false because it covers up all the rough stuff that’s left at home. It’s genuine because bourgeois people fall for their own cover-up, and start to deny the rough stuff that’s left at home. This second point turns out to have been what was wrong with the old bourgeoisie. As tradesmen and others worked their way into the urban middle classes, starting in the late Eighteenth Century, they were prone to expect thoroughgoing personal transformation, and to believe that they would become bourgeois. But nobody is really bourgeois. Being bourgeois is a simply a a well-articulated manner of behaving with people whom you don’t know well — or, as it may be, with everyone but the one person with whom you’re in love. Only a dolt would think that it’s hypocritical to be as pleasant as possible in the street, or to bottle up one’s furies and resentments while waiting at the checkout counter. It’s bottling things up and then letting all hell break loose in the company of loved ones that’s a problem. 

From the coordinates that I’ve sketched here, it is understandably difficult to make sense of the heart of Jonathan Franzen’s Op-Ed piece in Sunday’s Times. (“Liking Is For Cowards. Go For What Hurts.”) What’s bothering the novelist is Facebook’s appropriation of the verb “like”; unfortunately, he lets his annoyance run away with him. “The simple fact of the matter is that trying to be perfectly likable is incompatible with loving relationships.” Well, yes! But who’s trying to be “perfectly likable”? On the basis of his writing, I’d venture that Franzen himself has a problem with this; he smoulders with that peculiarly Midwestern desire to be liked (which is in no way to derogates from his achievement as an artist). At the same time, like any smart fellow, he doesn’t want to be situated too far from the banks of coolness. But being cool is not on his mind at the moment; being loving is. He sees that being lovable is not the same thing as being likeable. What I don’t understand is why he thinks that being likeable makes it hard to be lovable. One wants to be liked by the world — not perfectly liked, by any means, but generally liked — and, if healthy, one also wants to be loved by a very small number of people, no two in quite the same way, and with only one love commanding one’s complete candor. I suppose that can be very hard to realize both of these desires if one situates them on the same mental plane. But they no more belong on the same mental plane than one belongs in the same clothes round the clock. You don’t wear a suit to bed and you don’t go outside draped in a towel. Perhaps it’s that simple: adjust your behavior to the outfit that you allow another person to see. If you are never to be seen without dress shoes, then it’s safe to say that you have intimacy issues. Being cool and being nice are just different personas — not so much masks designed to hide as projections designed to inspire (they do share that). Being loving and lovable means shutting the projections down as far as we can without becoming oafs. 

As recently as forty years ago, many bourgeois people felt it necessary to be shocked by the details of the sex lives of others (even when the others in question were made-up characters in novels). Now we know better, and ask only not to witness these details. What plays in the bedroom stays in the bedroom (please!); we can assume that silence does not imply inertia. Although I’ve had some pretty hot-tempered moments, I’ve never acted in a way that afterward put me in mind of an animal. This is not to say that I should be untiringly pleasant if I found myself locked in a dining room after dinner, unable to say good night to fellow guests. But it wouldn’t take me long to suggest ripping up the tablecloth to partition the room into tolerably private spaces. That’s probably where I’d have gone with Gil Pender’s idea. 

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Tuesday, May 31st, 2011

¶ We don’t know what made the Blank-Simkin case newsworthy enough for coverage in this morning’s Times; the case, which seeks to reopen a divorce agreement on grounds of “mutual mistake,” is currently between appeals, and the next decision isn’t expected until later this year. But Peter Lattman’s report leaves us wondering why there’s a case at all. Like Laura Blank, we can’t see why her ex-husband, Paul Weiss partner Steven Simkin, should be allowed to reappropriate a portion of her settlement because he (subsequently) discovered that his account with Bernard Madoff was worthless. Comparing that account to a counterfeit Stradivarius is such a bogus analogy that we can attribute only to latent judicial sexism. ¶ Don’t miss Lawrence Altman’s summary of thirty years of AIDS reporting. “A common attitude was that all diseases were known…”

Weekend Update:
Icumen In
Memorial Day 2011

Monday, May 30th, 2011

From one of the dankest springs that anyone can recall, we have been hurled into midsummer sultriness. It’s surprisingly incapacitating. I had big plans for today, and followed through on precisely none of them. Here’s how bad it was: I read feeds, faute de mieux. Feeds! On a holiday!

This morning, I persuaded Kathleen to get out of bed on the earlyish side, so that we could see the 10:30 showing of Midnight in Paris. There were still plenty of aisle seats when we walked in, especially in the back, where I prefer to sit (so that I don’t block people, but also so that I can dart out unobtrusively when the first gallon of Coke hits my bladder), but there was a good crowd for that time of day. Kathleen loved it, as I knew she would. I saw a lot of details that had flown by on Friday — for example, the party atmosphere in the old Peugeot that picks up Gil on his first trip back to the Twenties babbled and swayed in much the same way as the rooftop crowd of night-clubbers at the end of Radio Days. I don’t think that the similarity is at all referential; rather, Woody Allen has an Idea of “hobnobbing with the rich” that animates both scenes. And another thing: I’ve been increasingly aware of how the filmmaker sees himself as a magician, and how his movies become most amusing when you let him show you something unexpected, such as the presence of Edgar Degas. He is even better with old tricks, although I must complain that the great Gad-in-the-Galerie joke, which still makes me laugh just to think about, was over much too quickly.

Will was with us yesterday afternoon. He is shown above at the sprinkler basin in the playground at Carl Schurz Park. I was sure that he’d want to Get Wet, but, in the event, he didn’t, so he didn’t. Not long before, he had been asleep in his stroller, which I pushed to and fro with one hand while holding Bharati Mujkherjee’s Miss New India in the other. I finished Miss New India this morning, and I liked it very much; but I wish that I could put my finger on why the book struck me as “unsophisticated” and “old-fashioned.” You could say that it’s an exciting fantasy, in which a vibrant young woman is granted a very unusual chance to exchange the traditional life of her hometown in Bihar for a self-realizing career in Bangalore. Mukherjee handles the golden opportunity pretty realistically, but it is nonetheless dogged by the muffled creaking of machina. The material will come into its own as a feature film — a medium that will liberate the tale from the point-of-consciousness (not just -view) of a twenty-year-old girl from the mofussil who all too often “hasn’t the p’oggiest” idea of what other people are talking about. (To be fair, Angie/Anjahli gets her big break because she can actually say “foggiest.”)

On Saturday, we had brunch out on the balcony with my very first Internet friend, someone whom I met digitally over the Independence Day weekend in 1996. We had met once in person, already many years ago. This time, I was introduced to her husband as well, and the four of us had a lively conversation in a mercifull breeze. I had big plans for Saturday afternoon as well, but in the end I did nothing but read. Christianity, mostly. I’m loving that book! It was great fun, this evening, to see Dan Brown implicated as one of the “mediocre novelists” who imagine that Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene were man and wife. “Mediocre”: le most juste. What’s really exciting, of course, is reading church history, a field that used be owned by the Church! But no more. I’m deeply glad that I read Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ a few months ago. I’ve been recommending it to everyone, although I haven’t written much about it here. More anon!

End of Season
May 2011/Fourth Week

Sunday, May 29th, 2011

¶ While we work up the stamina to stand on line for Midnight in Paris, it’s amusing to contemplate the alternative universe in which Woody Allen took the parts that were offered to him first, such as Richard Dreyfus’s psychiatrist in What About Bob. From a series of “Lost Roles” by Bradford Evans, at Splitsider. ¶ Meanwhile, at the mothership, Michelle Dean argues that Bridesmaids is not much of a “woman’s picture.” We couldn’t agree more — we just never thought that that was the point. ¶ The Epicurean Dealmaker prescribes a course of art studies. That is, just plain old looking at paintings. The real, actual things, on museum walls. For ten or twenty minutes at a pop. “ Try to decide what you think about it. After all, the painting is there for you. It will wait.” We like his style.

¶ A cram course in Paul Taylor: “Neither a pioneer nor a revolutionary, but certainly one of its most idiosyncratic, critically lauded, and widely loved choreographers.” Complete with video links, by Sanjoy Roy at the Guardian. (via ArtsJournal)

Famously, at company auditions, he always looks at how applicants walk. His portrait of George W Bush in Banquet of Vultures (2005) came from the same insight (according to Taylor, Bush’s walk gave him away as “a total phony”.)

¶ Michael Johnston reminds us not to miss the Elliott Erwitt show at the ICP. “[D]are I say that he was a Jack of all trades, master of many.” (The Online Photographer) ¶ A pair of back-to-back stories at the UK theatre bulletin Stage News begs for follow-up. the London Borough Councils will cease pan-London arts funding in August; the amount to be withheld is in the neighborhood of £20 million. Meanwhile, Andrew Lloyd Webber is taking the £32 million in proceeds from the sale of a Picasso and socking it into a foundation that will award grants to arts organizations (presumably throughout the UK). Will any of the London Councils losers pick up some ALW money? ¶ The prospect of Mr Wrong’s developing writer’s block ought to cause rejoicing in the land, we know; but we’re perverts and we’re heartened by his observation about ants. “Hell no, they handle their business.” Which is why he has to kill them each spring. (The Awl) ¶ Sean Manning writes wrenchingly about his mom and Oprah. We wish that it made us feel better about the retired diva. (The Millions)

¶ Frédéric Filloux finds an electrifying point of comparison between tech and media companies: how they spend money on new projects. (Monday Note)

3 / How to spend it. In itself, the cash allocation illustrates the cultural gap. In a tech company, once a project is approved, money will be injected until the outcome becomes clear: success or failure. As I asked an exec in a large tech group what the budget of the project we were discussing was, he answered: “Look, honestly I’ve never seen any spreadsheets on this. This project has been decided at the highest level of the corporation. We’ll pour money into it until it works or closes”.

By contrast, in a media company, investment will be kept at a bare minimum. Any engagement is set as low as possible: temporary staffing,  outsourced work, everything is in penny-pinching mode. Not exactly the “No Guts, No Glory” way…

There does appear to be an irreconcilable difference between the two about the definition and treatment of a valuable employee. ¶ How we manage to continue holding the idea of regulation in high regard while outfits like the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency display such egregious regulatory corruption is hard to argue without beginning to wonder how “regulatory capture” can be so widespread. As usual, Simon Johnson stokes our outrage. (The Baseline Scenario) 

¶ A breathtakingly comprehensive, steamrolling take-down of Wallace, Vollmann, Eggers & Co, by Ramon Glazov at The Exiled. We don’t quite agree, but we can’t quite disapprove, either. We’re particularly taken by Glazov’s insistent harping on the Calvinism of these writers’ outlooks. (via MetaFilter)

That’s all Infinite Jest boils down to. An anti-intellectual (yet amazingly pretentious) Calvinist cautionary tale that makes the same death threats about thinking that Requiem for a Dream made about drugs – “Brains: Just Say No!” Plus a few voyeuristic scenes of depraved poor people in a rehab centre. Bum fights, in other words. Cleverish ones. Hobo torture porn for postgraduate smirkers.

¶ Let us pipe an eye for John Delany, the 42 year-old founder of Intrade, an “online market prediction company,” who was such a family man that he contrived to die near the peak of Mount Everest hours before the birth of his third child, who will be called Hope. His widow will have been well-prepared for his absence. (Belfast Telegraph, via MetaFilter)

New: ¶ At Three Guys One Book, Jennifer Tyler gives a hand to Europa Editions, which has published, as its 100th title, Alina Bronsky’s novel, The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, translated by Tim Mohr. It sounds like a lot of fun, and we’ll probably have a copy in a day or two. (via The Morning News)

Have a Look: ¶ Le Palais idéal, built stone by stone by Ferdinand Cheval, aFrench postman. (via MetaFilter) ¶ Jim Henson, experimental filmmaker, @ Brainiac. ¶ Mr Stache, @ Joe.My.God.

Noted: ¶ “Metamaterials Could Help Wirelessly Charge Electronics by Making Space Disappear.” (80 Beats) ¶ Save water: grow a beard. Thanks, Bud. (Why does this leave us feeling ewwy, and since when does it require five gallons of water to shave every morning?) (via Joe.My.God) ¶ Long commutes correlate positively with divorce. (Did I say that correctly?) (GOOD)

Midnight in Paris
Friday, 27 May 2011

Friday, May 27th, 2011

Before anything else, I have to share my father-in-law’s answer to yesterday’s question: it turns out that veal tenderloin has been masquerading under the name noisette de veau. I’ve certainly seen that on menus, and I may even have known what it was, once upon a time — a time when I was ignorant of meat cuts generally, and “tenderloin” was just a word. I maintain that I’ve never seen it for sale in a shop, under any kind of name. But I’m relieved to know that those tenderloins haven’t been going to waste. “Were they real?”, Kathleen’s father sighed when she told him what we’ had for dinner the night before. Oh, yes; they were real. 

Five or six years ago, at a gathering of bloggers (imagine such a thing now), I heard a number of people complain that they were having a hard time coming up with interesting things to write about. “It’s terrible! All I can ever think of is ‘What I had for dinner last night’!” I’ve written a handful or two of entries about that very subject, but I’ve tried to keep a lid on it — actually, keeping a lid on it hasn’t been that hard, because I’m rarely very interested, the next day, by what I had for dinner the night before, and certainly least of all when I can’t think of anything else to write about. When you have nothing to say, resorting desperately to ‘tried and true’ fallbacks is rarely a good idea, because if you’re not inspired by what’s new and different in your life — that is, if you can’t even see what’s new and different in it — you’re probably not in the best frame of mind for dusting off some old kitchen clichés. The problem with blogging remains, however, that of writing regularly, preferably daily. Even if nobody reads what you write, the habit of turning out a few readable paragraphs every day is one of the best that any writer can have — certainly the best habit that does not involve the judicious reading of other people’s writing. 

I’ve been reading Alan Jacobs’s engaging little book, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. I have found it provocative in ways that I doubt the author intended. Quite often, I’m piqued by something that Jacobs has taken for granted — without, I believe, sensing that he was taking anything for granted. In the section entitled “Lost,” he recounts the story of William Cobbett’s intellectual awakening as a teenager. His eye was caught by Swift’s The Tale of a Tub in a suburban bookshop window, and he decided to spend his lunch money to buy it. He was so absorbed by the satire that he forgot his hunger and read until it was simply too dark to make out the words. “The lure of the book so compelled him,” Jacobs writes, 

that he voluntarily gave up a meal in exchange for the chance to read it; and the spell of the book, as he read it, was so strong that neighter hunger nor darkness could touch him. He was “rapt”; anyone passing him would have recognized that “eye-on-the-object look.” 

I have never known this rapture, ever. It is not within the gift of my nervous system to grant forgetfulness of bodily discomforts. I can postpone easing them, and when I do, invariably when I’m reading something exciting, narrative suspense is amplified by a measure of suspense concerning my ability to withstand privation. I don’t lose myself for hours; I am up and about every twenty minutes or so just dealing with the noise that comes from within my skin. I long ago learned how to minimise the disruption caused these distractions, and to suppress ones coming wholly from outside. I keep my house in order, to put very succinctly. The result is that I’m bemused by the trouble that people have with the distraction of the Internet. I don’t know whether to envy or pity the spellbinding enchantments of their pre-digital lives. 

But there’s more to it than refilling the tea mug and running to the bathroom. When I say that I never forget myself, I mean never. When I was young, this relentless self-awareness was crushing, and I look a lot of recreational drugs just to get away from myself (a desire that had nothing to do, I insist, with hating myself). Even LSD didn’t do the trick, though. Now that I’m at the other end of life, being aware of what I’m thinking all the time, of how I’m responding, say, to what I’m reading while I’m reading it, is no longer so crippling; it’s just the way I’m wired, and I’ve learned to live with it. And, as always when you learn to live with something, I’ve found distinct advantages in the persistence of my own company, as it were. It has taught me, for one thing, that pleasure is not a commodity, something that you go out and consume, but a harmony, a congruence between an experience and your state of being. (If you’re not in the mood, in other words, even Jane Austen isn’t going to cut it.) While I don’t believe that our pleasures are so personal, so idiosyncratic — so subjective — that we have nothing intelligible to say about them, I do think that it helps to know something about the context of a critical response. When it comes to writing about a given performance of music — to pick the sharpest case — I think that talking about my recollections of other performances is more illuminating than the attempt to pin analytical absolutes and mood markers on the event, and vastly more useful than an abstract dissection of the piece of music itself. Beethoven’s Eroica exists on paper, and much can be learned from examining the celestial mathematics of its score. But none of us has ever heard that symphony, nor will we ever. We have only heard discrete executions, fallen and imperfect from the point of view of strict realization, but occasionally unbeatably satisfying for all that. 

Thinking hard about all of this for several months, I’ve become uncomfortable with the patina of objectivity that I know very well how to spread over my commentary. During the golden age of print journalism, professional reporters made a religious tenet of burying personal responses, on the theory that no reader cared what a reporter thought, because who the hell was a reporter? Just a guy with a pencil. We think differently nowadays, but there remain occasions for sticking to the illusion of “the facts, ma’am — just the facts.” I’ve developed a trope for such occasions: I stick a virtual mascot on my shoulder and write in the first person plural. (The first person plural is wonderfully effective at wrongfooting any attempts to squeeze in the individual.) At my much-neglected Web site, Civil Pleasures, I intend someday to plant the reasonably expository pieces that can still be found a Portico, a site that I have abandoned. It will be very helpful, when I write those pages, to be able to refresh my memory with notes and recollection culled from more casual writing here. But in order to write here as often as I do, I have to keep it casual.

Instead of writing about Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris itself, then, I’m going to tell you how I got from the movie house to lunch. Oh, I loved the movie. I adored it! But that’s about me, not Midnight in Paris. As I stepped onto the pavement, I felt something odd right away. Instead of the usual post-glamorous-comedy letdown, in which I wish that my life were different, I came out feeling very happy about my life as it is. After all, the life that I’m living is such that I had only to walk across the street first thing in the morning to see a very funny movie chock-full of arty references that I grasped easily enough to appreciate the filmmaker’s skill at saving them from mere gratuity — and also a movie that functions even more incisively than any of its predecessors as an object lesson in Woody Allen’s profoundly cinematic sensibility, even as it casts ghostly highlights on earlier pictures (I was especially reminded of Shadows and Fog, but also of the portrait of a bad marriage — here a bad-marriage-to-be — in Crimes and Misdemeanors). I was alive to Allen’s extraordinarily adroit handling of his actors’ gifts; if there were absolutely nothing else to recommend Midnight in Paris, it would deserve immortality simply for the comic haberdashery of matching one of the funniest movie jokes ever with the particular funny-man talents of Gad Elmaleh. I was amazed that two of my favorite actresses on earth, Rachel McAdams and Marion Cotillard, had been dangled before me in a way that left me delighted, not discontented. It may look as though I’m talking about a movie here, but I’m not.

Then I turned the corner of 86th and Second, heading down to the Hi-Life for a club sandwich, and a new song came on the Nano. I knew what it was right away, because even though I had never heard this original version in my life I was very familiar with its Sesame Street knockoff, also featuring the singer-songwriter Feist: “1234.” How cool to learn this neat song from my grandson’s enthusiasm! How cool of Sesame Street, too, of course — but the fact is that I’m living in a world where these very nice things are happening. They start happening out in the world around me, but they end up happening in my head. Midnight in Paris pushed me beyond counting my blessings; it made me feel blessed.

Friday, 27 May 2011

Friday, May 27th, 2011

¶ One of the victims of Daren Palmer’s Ponzi scheme seems to want it known that she was ripped off by a nicer sort of thief: Bernard Madoff was probably not the sort of man to get down on his knees and clean sanctuary floors. Her point goes to the heart of affinity fraud; Mr Madoff’s victims would have had a number of unflattering names for such a guy, and “neighborly” would not be among them. ¶ Call us cynics, but we’re not nearly as interested in right and wrong as we are in political viability (the alternative to which is the wrongest wrong of them all, social or political breakdown), so we’ll be watching to see whether Michael Bloomberg’s emphatic endorsement of same-sex marriage achieves its intended effect, which will have more to do with the mayor’s personal patronage — he is a generous political contributor, after all — than with his bully pulpit in City Hall. If this mayor’s efforts fail to bring about marriage equality in New York State, our conviction that political progressives don’t know what they’re doing will plumb new depths. ¶ From our deep reading in the history of the so-called Dark Ages we have found few barbarities to compare with the American treatment of recreational drugs and drug addiction. In the evitable museum that will be erected to remind us of our benightedness, we hope that prominent display will be made available for the children’s coloring books into which solutions of the addiction-treatment drug Suboxone have been painted. We’d be sorry to see them cluttering a museum of American ingenuity.

Veal Tenderloin (almost) Leaves Me Speechless
Thursday, 26 May 2011

Thursday, May 26th, 2011

At Eli’s Market yesterday, I saw something that I’m pretty sure I’d never seen before: veal tenderloin. I have no idea why I haven’t seen it; presumably, every animal that has yielded up the ingredients for saltimbocca and jarrets de veau bore a tenderloin cut as well, but even though I shop at some pretty grand provisioners, I’ve never seen it. Nor have I seen it on a menu, to the best of my knowledge. But there it was, yesterday; or, rather, there they were, slices of veal just as fat-free as beef tenderloin, but smaller and — veal-toned. They were also, each slice, wrapped in prosciutto. I asked butcher about cooking times, and something in the enthusiasm of his reply suggested that veal tenderloin was new to him as well. Then again, selling anything at $44.95 per pound would make anyone enthusiastic. My two slices weighed in at very slightly more than half a pound.

I had already picked up a packet of morels. The prices at Agata & Valentina are much lower, but it cannot be denied that Eli’s treats the morels better. The plastic box contained a clutch of perfectly firm mushrooms. I bought a nice fat shallot and a tub of veal broth. And a packet of snap peas as well.

At home, I simmered the chopped and butter-wilted shallot in the veal stock. I sliced the morels and sautéed them in a bit of butter. When it was time to eat, I browned the veal slices in clarified butter for about ninety seconds on each side; then I slid the meat into a 350º oven while I cooked everything else. The strained veal stock went into the sauté pan with a dollop of cream and the mushrooms, and when this sauce reached the right thickness, I placed the veal slices on the dinner plates, together with a handful of boiled tortellini and some snap peas. Then I spooned the sauce over the veal, dribbling it onto some of the pasta as well.

I can think of a few improvements. I might have flavored the stock with mirepoix instead of shallot. I might have gotten the sauce reduction going before cooking the veal. And I never gave a thought to herbs. But as it was, I have only two or three times in my life surprised myself with a more complexly delicious dish, and I haven’t eaten a dozen like it anywhere. Veal tenderloin isn’t by any means gamy, but it sends up a bundle of notes rather than the robust unison of beef. The morels add parts to the harmony. The result is a dish that tastes magnificent and, what’s more, lodges an extraordinary aftertaste that, last night, seemed to deepen with the passing hours. The sense of having just now eaten well lasted for hours. 

Where has veal tenderloin been all my life?  

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Thursday, May 26th, 2011

¶ We think that Agnes Treuren, of the Dutch Consulate here (and a resident of the Upper East Side), must be mistaken: she claims never to have been on the “Fon Weig” Expressway. (That’s ‘Weig’ as in ‘leg,’ according to Ms Treuren.) It is impossible to avoid the Van Wyck when arriving or departing from New York City via Kennedy Airport, without going perversely out of your way. Wouldn’t you know: Bronson Van Wyck, descendent of the first mayor of Greater New York whose name Robert Moses slapped on the highway (and a genuine Knickerbocker), is an affable party planner who calls himself “Van Wike.” ¶ A new statue of John Paul II in Rome, outside the railroad terminal, is exciting all the disgust of a future masterpiece. The sculptor, Oliviero Rainaldi, says he usually gets more compliments on his work, which is sweet. Rainaldi’s inpiration was a photograph of the late pope enfolding a child in his robes. In the statue, the child has been replaced by a cavity. Hmmm… ¶ We think that Ashton Kutcher is loaded with geniality, but is a shrewd venture capitalist? Read Jenna Wortham’s breathlessly admiring story as many times as you like. We think that the actor’s value lies rather in the company he keeps, and his willingness to share what he hears. Which is plenty good enough!

Living Doll
Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Wednesday, May 25th, 2011

¶ We thought that Huguette Clark was already dead, but, no, we had only known that she was probably not long for this world. A few months ago (?), the Times ran a story about the New Canaan estate that Ms Clark’s representatives had put on the market (for $24 million). That was the first that we’d heard of the reclusive heiress, who took her collection of dolls and dollhouses and checked into the hospital right down the street from us about a quarter of a century ago. (The hospital is no longer with us, either.) There is something so idle and unformed about the life that has come to an end after 104 years that one feels both protectively relieved that Ms Clark never heard the sound of tumbrils at her door — and also a tad disappointed.

Reading Note:
My Novels Problem
Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Wednesday, May 25th, 2011

Before continuing yesterday’s discussion of William Deresiewicz’s gem of a Jane Austen book, I want to ask for your help with a problem that I’ve been having — and, let me tell you, just getting ready to ask for help has been helpful; so, thanks! My problem concerns novels that I’m stuck in, and making piles of the books in my fiction bin demonstrated right away that the problem is not so bad as I thought it was. It kills me not to finish a novel, and my dread of doing so has had the perverse effect of multiplying, in my imagination, the number of books that might be cast aside. By my preliminary count, there are only seven, and only four of those really count.

I was going to ask you to help me with this even before I went to Crawford Doyle and bought — another novel. I went on purpose to do so. This morning, I read about Alina Bronsky’s The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine (translated by Tim Mohr) in a blog that was new to me, and I gathered from the review that this is a book that I will actually like. I’m not reading it to be cool or to keep au courant. What did Jennifer Tyler say that sold me on it?

If you need to know anything at all about Rosalinda Achmetowna, just ask. She’ll be happy to tell you all about her grace and selflessness, her great beauty, and how exactly she manages to help her pathetic family muddle through life. Grossly and pathologically self-delusional, Rosa confidently sees herself as the savior of everyone else’s story.

I am someone who cannot help loving a character (even if I hate her) who’s pathologically self-delusional and whose name is Rosalinda Achmetowna. Traffic was so bad in the taxi coming home (it’s hot today, and I’m conserving my energy; what’s more, I was carrying a load of perishables from Eli’s) that I started to read Hottest Dishes, and it had me smiling right away.

As my daugher Sulfia was explaining to me that she was pregnant but that she didn’t know by whom, I paid extra attention to my posture. I sat with my back perfectly straight and folded my hands elegantly in my lap.

I’m beginning to think that what has denatured Anglophone fiction is the patina of niceness worn by everyone, even psychopaths. We have internalized the prohibition on saying what we think that we don’t even think it anymore. That’s why characters from former Iron-Curtain countries are so refreshing. They have no manners! They’re incredibly rude and they get away with it.

That night I suddenly got worried that Sulfia might die on me. It had been years since I worried about her, and I didn’t like the feeling.

Well, I can tell already that I’m going to read The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar with simple pleasure. Now, what about these other books?

As I say, there are seven in the pile of books that I’ve begun but set aside. Three of them “don’t count.” First, there’s Portobello, by Ruth Rendell, which I bought together with The Birthday Present, one of the author’s most exciting tales, involving a feckless MP and an automobile accident. (I wish I could tell you more, but I didn’t write it up, and I stopped holding on to crime fiction.) Portobello is not so engaging. It involves one of those untalented but delusional young men from disadvantaged backgrounds who intrigue Rendell a great deal more than they do me. Eugene Wren, a furniture dealer in the eponymous road (I think), is almost equally unattractive. There’s no question that the book suffers (in my eyes) by comparison with The Birthday Present, which reads like Alan Hollinghurst in comparison. If I ever do read Portobello, I’ll have to go back to the beginning and start over. This time, at least, I won’t be poring over the A-Zed looking for Blagrove Road, which is marked by the simple numeral “1” and identified in the “List of Numbered Locations” for Map 91, Square B2. Finding that took forever.

Another book that doesn’t count is Edith Wharton’s Glimpses of the Moon. I had no reason to think that this novel, first published in 1922, would be one of Wharton’s better ones, but I fell for the Pushkin Press edition, which is adorable. By the second chapter, I had the queasy feeling that Wharton was imagining herself as a lovely young desirable woman who just happened not to have any money. The love talk between Nick Lansing and Suzy Branch, who have just gotten married for the sole purpose of enjoying a respectable honeymoon, after which they’ll have spent everything they have and be obliged to seek other partners, is oddly corseted, and reminiscent of Henry James real last novels, the ones nobody reads: The Other House, The Outcry.

His wife instantly challenged this belittling of her capacity. “It took a good deal of argument to convince you that we could face the ridicule of Como!”

But Wharton will keep. I hope before I die to go on a Wharton craze, and read Hudson River Bracketed a third time. The third book that doesn’t count is Edouard Levé’s Suicide. It ought to be easy to say whether or not one has begun to read a book, but I can’t manage it in this case. That’s because I read the last ten pages. This is the novel, in the form of a suicide note, by an author who hanged himself before his final work hit the bookstores. I don’t know why, if I’m going to read it at all, I’m going to read it in English. Someone with a rule ought to have rapped my knuckles when I picked this book up.

Now for the harder cases. I’ve actually read about half of Don Carpenter’s Hard Rain Falling. I’ve also read the last couple of chapters. The part that I didn’t read takes place mostly in a prison — a topos that I strenuously avoid. Carpenter’s writing is very strong, but his subject matter — severely undereducated down-and-outs in California, way back in the Fifties — is unbearably sad. Not sad in the have-a-good-cry sense, but sad in the sad-sack sense; the waste of human potential is unpleasantly acrid. I am going to set this novel aside, which means shelving it with all the other NYRB editions. If I run into someone, in person or online, who raves about it and who persuades me to take another look, I’ll pick up where I was.

Jaimy Gordon’s Lord of Misrule won the National Book Award last year. Like Tinkers, which won the Pulitzer earlier in the year, it turned out to be almost impossible for me to like. “Come to find out if you asked by powerful means for more than the animal had to give, you could not manage the results.” I can’t read sentences like that. It’s difficult and it’s hard: plain, unlovely, and, most of all, uninteresting. The last clause is terminally unmodulated. I got through the first race (the first of the book’s three sections) torn between incomprehension and uninterest. The moral of the story is that I will never trust prizes again. I’m not saying that prizes don’t count. But I need more — the recommendation of a trusted critic. As I recall, I read only one book on last year’s Man Booker list, and it wasn’t even truly adult fiction, David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Not a bad book, really, but somehow a shameless one — a graphic novel without the pictures. In any case, I am going to give Lord of Misrule away.

The Fates Will Find Their Way, by Hannah Pittard, is not a long book by any means, and I’ve read about a quarter of it. I was interested in it because it’s written in the first person plural, a voice that Joshua Ferris and Ed Park used to such great effect in their books about cubicular ennui. From time to time, individuals in the group step out from the narrators’ circle, as it were, and into the narrative spolight, so that, presumably, they can’t, at least for the moment, be part of “we.” And yet… The problem with The Fates Will Find Their Way is that the narrative group is not very interesting, and also it doesn’t know very much. It’s made up of a bunch of teenaged boys who are fixated by the disappearance of the lovely Norah Lindell. There’s an arresting passage not far from the beginning that — well it would be arresting if it weren’t a tissue of speculation, a hollow-sounding might-have-been spun by nameless boys — about what might have been Norah’s last hours, or maybe not. As I discovered reading Francine Prose’s lovely but to me unmoving Goldengrove, I find the conceit of beginning the book with the extinction of a lovely young life to be annoying. It’s a terrible thing in real life, and I don’t believe that reading about it makes it any more bearable.

Pittard might have held on to me if she hadn’t made what hits me as a tactical error: she never names the “leavy enclave” (I’m quoting the dust jacket) in which her suburban moon-o-drama takes place. Given her blurred narrative source, this is not the time to argue, fictionally, that all suburbs are the same. I think that Pittard ought to have taken pains to detail an actual American town, naming real streets and setting her pool parties in real houses. Her decision not to do so makes the novel weightless. Dreamy, perhaps; but not in a way that recommends the book to me. I wish that I were as determined to send this book to HousingWorks as I am to unload Lord of Misrule, but it’s difficult to imagine getting rid of a book that’s on my shelves at the moment in order to make room for this one.

The final hard choice is Wilhelm Genazino’s The Shoe Tester of Frankfurt. This was enthusiastically recommended to me by a member of the staff at Crawford Doyle to whom I have already apologized for having trouble with it. I’ve got about fifty pages to go — somewhat more than a third. I suspect that Genazino’s charms are untranslatable. His title, as distinct from New Directions’ choice for Philip Boehm’s translation, is Ein Regenschirm für diesen Tag, which even if you don’t know what it means scans beautifully and naturally. It happens to mean “An umbrella for this day,” which, together with the dactylic rhythm, invokes the Lord’s Prayer — an apt allusion for the story of man who seems to live on the most exiguous resources. “An umbrella for this day” isn’t much better than “shoe tester of Frankfurt”; I can see the publisher’s dilemma. What might very well be witty and genuinely droll in the original text comes off, in English, as quirky and even creepy, as a forty-something man caroms among the women in his life — given his unprepossessing character, it’s hard to believe that there are any — while, yes, testing luxury-brand shoes. This testing shoes business is either an occluded joke or a strange German manufacturing practice. I couldn’t tell which, and I don’t much care. Nevertheless, I have resolved, as of this writing, to soldier through the rest of the novel and to keep it. Even if I don’t much like it, I gave it a try because someone I talk to fairly regularly liked it.

There’s more; I haven’t even gotten to the books that I haven’t yet opened. But this is enough for today, and it was the hard part You’ve been a great help! Thanks!

Not What They Seem
Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Wednesday, May 25th, 2011

¶ Our view of the Central Country as an unstable giant is painfully confirmed by Keith Bradsher’s report about the problems bedevilling China’s electric power supply. The environmental side-effects are undoubtedly the worst of it — China is the world’s largest producer of greenhouse emissions, spewing ever-larger quantities of unwanted gases into the atmosphere — but trouble in the near teerm lurks in the disingenuous relations among the powers that be. When the grid operators defy Beijing’s demands for supply, only to watch their profits eaten up by trhe demands of environmental regulators, it would be healthy if they could squabble more openly, but instead, in the Chinese manner, they must smile unanimously for the camera — until one of them pulls the rug out from under the others and all hell breaks lose. Well, maybe this time, it will be different. ¶ We thank the Supreme Court and its rulings on campaign finance for turning Congress into a pack of dogs: “Mr. Netanyahu received so many standing ovations that at times it appeared that the lawmakers were listening to his speech standing up,” writes Helene Cooper. Just like dogs, they wagged their tails at the prospect of handouts from AIPAC and other lobbying groups — and that is the only policy that they understand.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Tuesday, May 24th, 2011

¶ We’re not sure that Dwight Garner intended his review of Chester Brown’s Paying For It to be a rave, but we’ve lost no time ordering a copy. We feel a compare-and-contrast with Alison Bechdel coming up!  ¶ Playwright Yasmina Reza has a sound approach to interviews: “I try to structure interviews in such a way that I say nothing. It’s better for me to be mysterious.” Which is fine, because — and we really don’t mean to be snarky — her very entertaining plays are not.

Gotham Diary:
Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Tuesday, May 24th, 2011

It’s quite a bit warmer today, with intermittent sun poking through a threatening storm. The building’s air conditioning was turned on several days ago, before, for the first time in my memory, it was actually needed. I’ve got it on now, with the balcony door open, and it’s not unpleasant here in the corner, from which I can see everything even though, once I’m writing, I look at nothing. 

Shortly after she left for work, Kathleen called to tell me that José, the one doorman who has been here longer than we have, would be wanting to make an appointment with me when I eventually went downstairs. The building is changing the circuit breaker boxes in each apartment, and is scheduling two-hour blocks to do the work, during which time of course there will be no electricity in the rooms. No big deal for most people, really, but I want to be sure that all of the electronics are offline beforehand. This includes a lot of units that I don’t ordinarily touch, such as WiFi boosters and the NAS drive on which my iTunes and Quicken files are backed up. I’ve contacted Jay, the god of tech, and he has supplied me with what will make a useful checklist. So I ought to be all right. Unlike a real power outage, the replacement procedure won’t interrupt the water supply, so the inconvenience of sitting here while the box is changed won’t be too tedious. I say that now, now that I have scheduled an appointment for next week. My reaction to Kathleen’s news this morning was an urge to throw up. The idea of any sort of change was completely insupportable, and last year, when Ray Soleil installed the halogen ceiling fixture in what I now call the gallery, the on/off killed the modem. True, the modem dated back to Stonehenge — but no modem was an unthinkable predicament, even with my handy MiFi cards. 

Once I’d done a modicum of blogwork, I gathered up my housekeys and went to the Post Office. I had envelopes to mail to family members, containing sets of the postcards that I’d recently had made of photos from Will’s second trip to the Museum. I made up the envelopes last night, and addressed the remaining cards to a variety of friends, generally excluding Kathleen’s old friends, who will have to wait for the next set of postcards, ordered before I went to bed, which feature two images of Will and Kathleen looking at knightly armor. Moo, the outfit that makes the cards, has been amazing; I may have last night’s order early next week.

Of the six images in the last set of postcards, three are very dear to me and one is the standout favorite. I decided to hold on to an extra copy of this postcard, just in case. This morning, just-in-case donged in my brain. I realized that I wanted to send it to my friend JR in Paris — it was the very one that I wanted him to have. But where was his address? He had written it down in a notebook on his last visit. That sounds pretty hopeless, I know, but I had a fairly good idea of which notebook I’d had him use, and it turned out that I was right. So I printed up a label (thus entering the address into a Dymo file), pasted it on the card, and wrote “Greetings from Gotham” alongside. At the Post Office, I learned that the tarriff for sending postcards overseas is 98¢, so I bought a sheet of 98¢ stamps. As for the favorite image, I’m thinking of having Moo make it up into notecards. 

Like the Venetophiles in Judith Martin’s No Vulgar Hotel, anxious to distinguish themselves from “tourists” even though that’s precisely what they are, too, I’m uneasy about all this personalized stationery, which I love unreservedly but am not so sure that I would approve of on the receiving end. Moo, as I say, does a great job of producing a quality product at a reasonable price (and in no time at all). I, I like to think, take reasonably interesting photographs. And Will is of course the world’s first perfect grandchild, and an elf in front of the camera to boot. So I’m not crazy, am I? Oh, it’s no use; I know that Kant would not approve. 

My uneasiness is actually a highly refained sentiment that I owe to many attentive readings of Jane Austen’s Emma. In A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter, William Deresiewicz recounts his mounting horror at discerning the similiarities between himself, if he must be absolutely honest, and Austen’s heroine. Good reader that he was, he recoiled from the novel’s thunderclap at Box Hill, where Emma airly and inexcusably insults Miss Bates, with a flinch of self-recognition. 

Emma’s cruelty , which I was so quick to criticize, was nothing, I saw, but the mirror image of my own. The boredom and contempt that the book aroused were not signs of Austen’s ineptitude; they were the exact responses she wanted me to ahve. She had incited them, in order to expose them. By creating a heroine who felt exactly as I did, and who behaved precisely as I wdould have in her situation, she was showing me my own ugly face. I couldn’t deplore Emma’s disdain for Miss Bates, or her boredom with the whole commonplace Highbury world, without simultaneously condemning my own.

I read the first chapter of Deresiewicz’s literary memoir, which alternates between appreciations of Austen’s life and work and recollections of his own, with the most complete interest possible; I could not have been a less disinterested reader. I, too, had — have — grown up in Jane Austen’s tutelage. When I was young and unwilling to understand the point of good manners, I chafed at what seemed to be her insistence upon respectability, but I always knew that she was fundamentally right about things. I read her at first for her wit. Unlike Deresiewicz, I didn’t dislike Emma at all; I thought that she was a role model. How I should have like tobe rich and in charge! When Emma’s schemes fell through, I held others accountable. I blamed Mr Knightley for being such a sourpuss. I blamed Harriet for letting Emma down. I didn’t even bother to blame Mr Elton for anything; he was too hopeless, and too richly deserved Mrs E. I agreed with Mr Woodhouse on the subject of Emma’s perfection. Until, of course, that picnic at Box Hill. When Miss Bates sighs that she will have no trouble saying three very dull things — one of the options offered by the naughty game that Frank Churchill has proposed to the party — Emma can’t resist making explicit a concern that she has no doubt is universally acknowledged in Highbury. Foreseeing three very dull paragraphs, she obliges Miss Bates to be brief, and serve up her dull items at once. This is very terrible, but the first time I read the novel, I agreed with Emma, when she tries to defend herself against Mr Knightley’s wrath. “It was not so very bad. I daresay she did not understand me.” But then Mr Knightley lowers the boom.

She is poor; she has sunk from the comforts she was born to; and if she live to old age must probably sink more. her situation should secure your compassion. it was badly done, indeed! You, whom she had known from an infant, whom she had seen grow up from a period when her notice was an honour — to have you now, in thoughtless spirits, and the pride of the moment, laugh at her, hunble her — and before her niece, too — and before others, many of whom (certainly some) would be entirely guided by your treatment of her. 

My cheeks fairly smarted. And they still do, every time I read the passage, because I was a lot more like Emma than William Deresiewicz.

More anon…

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Tuesday, May 24th, 2011

¶ Manchester footballer Ryan Giggs’s “superinjunction” problem looks, from our Olympian perch, like a made-to-order generational culture clash. Is the doddering British judiciary going ga-ga over reputations? Or does an infantile Twitter need an intervention? What made us laugh was the technico-legalooneyness that allowed the British press to circumvent the inunction and mention Mr Giggs’s alleged affair with a Big Brother contestant (a lady!) once the matter was bruited in House of Commons discussion. We were reminded, in any case, that it has been months and months and months since we last checked our Twitter account. But nothing ever happens on Olympus; that’s the point. ¶ Jean-Claude Trichet storms out of a meeting rather than discuss the restructuring of the the European Central Bank’s Greek bond holdings, and Landon Thomas concludes his account of the mess by quoting Edward Hugh, the genius behind A Fistful of Dollars. Meanwhile, the Spaniards and the Italians are inveighing against the prospect of Greek backsliding. Too bad about that Rapture thing on Saturday.

Gotham Diary:
Still Happening
Monday, 23 May 2011

Monday, May 23rd, 2011

Until a few minutes ago, the balcony floor (not shown) was uncluttered neatly swept. Then I discovered an infestation of some kind in the ivy in the living room. How long the bugs have been at play, I’ve no idea. I think of ivy as hardy, but I’ve had a lot of trouble with it indoors. It seems to require very frequent watering, and now this. I set the plants on the balcony floor and watered them well with a mild solution of Ivory Soap. We’ll see. Meanwhile, that bonsai tree on the table — Kathleen tells that it’s a Fukien Tea Tree (“Fujian, you mean,” I couldn’t help correcting) — seems to be recovering from replanting. It arrived from an online merchant in a broken pot, and by the time that Kathleen decided that she couldn’t be bothered to ship it back, it was looking pretty pekid. Repotting was nothing less than traumatic, because the roots were bound to the pot by a coiled copper wire that didn’t want to let go. When most of the leaves curled up and turned black, I thought that we’d lost it, but the outlook improved a day or two later, with a burgeoning of new growth. I’ve never had anything to do with bonsai before and would probably not have taken it up on my own. But caring for Kathleen’s orphaned tea tree has already given me a taste of mandarin calm. If it flourishes, I can’t help believing, then so shall I.

I had hopes of taking Will to the Astor Court this weekend; I thought that he’d enjoy running around in there for a bit, even though it’s not very big. But it was not to be; after a few weeks of bouncing good health, he succumbed to some sort of infection and was not his jolly self. We thought that he might rally on Sunday afternoon, but by the time I reached his house in a taxi, his fever had spiked again, and I simply stayed in the cab and came home.

There was plenty to do. And I managed to do plenty, notwithstanding the temptations of Donna Leon’s new Guido Brunetti book, Drawing Conclusions. I finished that this morning. It’s one of her best — or perhaps it’s one of her most typical. The action is set entirely in Venice. Signorina Elettra Zorzi has at least two comic duets with Brunetti, and one of them is followed by a cabeletta which Brunetti muses on the beneficent small-bore corruption that makes society work in spite of itself (at least if you are a Venetian). There are two lines of plot stretching away from the dead body in the first chapter, so you know that one of them has to be a red herring. More than that I really cannot say at this time, because I might spoil a clue. While working in the kitchen, I watched Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges, the black comedy with Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, and Ralph Fiennes that I had to see as part of my Thekla Reuten festival. (When I saw the movie in the theatre, I didn’t know who she was, if you know what I mean.) For the most part, however, I worked. It was discouraging to spend hours tidying up the balcony — really tidying it up, like never before, really — only to be kept from enjoying it by the unseasonable gloom. The weather could be worse, of course; the weather in Joplin, Missouri has been a lot worse. But we’ve all had enough of damp and chilly dark days. We’re so demoralized that it’s hard to look forward to anything. And now this: bugs! On en a ras le bol! 

As for today, it was a Monday. It was impossible to believe, in the early afternoon hours, that I would do any of the things that I was supposed to do. I couldn’t imagine it! Somehow, force of habit took over. I don’t know how many feeds I read (or marked as read) before the outstanding number of unread feeds dropped below the thousand mark, but I’d guess that it was about five hundred. I read most of the Book Review, and most of it seemed inane. Was this just me? Was it the cold that I felt coming on? Was it my deep desire to dive into Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Christianity, a book that I’ve denied myself for some reason?

In prospect, reading Christianity seemed not just pleasant but dutiful. I’m finding Alan Jacobs’s book-length essay, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, unduly freighted with the titles of books that, in my opinion, don’t belong in or near discussions of Middlemarch. The fact that Jacobs is a biographer of CS Lewis goes far to explain this. As I read the book, which advocates, quite rightly, reading for pleasure, a vague sense of something amiss crystallized in the realization that too many writers about reading have forgotten — perhaps they’ve never known — that history at its best has a literary excellence that no fiction can match. I’m thinking of books like George Dangerfield’s The Strange Death of Liberal England or any of CV Wedgwood’s books about Seventeenth-Century Europe. William Doyle’s history of the French Revolution is not thrilling on absolutely every page, but its grasp of the tragic tensions of the upheaval is complete, and quite beyond the range of any conceivable cinema. Jonathan Lears’s recent Rebirth of a Nation has to be the most sobering, not to say depressing, history of the United States every written by an American. These books are packed with the excitement and suspense of gothic fiction — and they’re all true to life! At one point in In Bruges,  Colin Farrell’s character dismisses history (of which Bruges is so redolent) as “a lot of stuff that already happened.” I wanted to shake him: No! History is the stuff that is still happening!

I like to think that Donna Leon would agree with me.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Monday, May 23rd, 2011

¶ The weather here in New York is so grimly unseasonable that the sad story of Joseph Brooks, composer of the song “You Light Up My Life,” seems like the only story worth telling. Joseph Goldstein’s news item does not appear to be an obituary. What pathos! ¶ David Carr considers electrocuting Nancy Grace. Not really! He is cheered to note that her falling ratings may induce a fate worse than death. If we took a dimmer view of human nature, we would not be surprised that standing up for the victims of crimes could involve so much unattactive behavior.

May 2011/Third Week

Saturday, May 21st, 2011

¶ Thanks to Tyler Cowen, we encountered Ethan Zuckerman’s “dance mix” on cities and serendipity. As we’ve pointed out in large ways and small ever since we took to the Internet eleven years ago, it’s possible to live the life of a villager in the most booming metropolis — and that’s what most city-dwellers do (even, and perhaps especially, the habitués of downtown clubs). That’s why we don’t put much stock in the utility of exposure to “opposing points of view.” What’s better, in our view, is constantly sifting through the differences among similar points of view.

The real takeaway from Ethan’s piece is the grandeur of using the Internet to make and maintain friendships around the world.  

Through my work on Global Voices, I’m blessed with a set of close friends from around the world, and I often catch glimpses of important breaking stories, either through the work we do on the site, of from my friends’ preoccupations on their social media feeds. In late December 2010, it became clear that something very unusual was happening in Tunisia – friends like Sami Ben Gharbia were both covering the protests unfolding in Sidi Bouzid and spreading across the country, and asking loudly why no media outside the region was covering the revolution underway. I got into the act with one of my better-timed blogposts – on January 12th, I published “What if Tunisia had a revolution, but nobody watched?“… and I got a lot of phone calls when Ben Ali fled the country two days later.

The revolution in Tunisia caught intelligence and diplomatic services around the world flat-footed. It didn’t have to – there was a wealth of information being published on Tunisian Facebook pages, aggregated by groups like and distributed on Al Jazeera (primarily through their Arabic service.) But this shift from a world where news is dominated by superpowers to a multipolar world is a hard one for diplomats, the military, the press and individuals to get used to. And if I’m honest about my view of the world, I’m forced to admit that there’s no way I would have known about the revolution brewing if I didn’t have close Tunisian friends.

Note that  Ethan’s Tunisian friends were presumably not barraging him with points of view opposed to his own. Quite the opposite! (My Heart’s in Accra; via Marginal Revolution)

¶ In the Big Book of Perfect Timing, Alan Stillman will deserve a special place. He opened the first TGI Friday’s in 1965 — the Year of the Pill. Before Friday’s he says, there was no place for young women to go out to, alone or in groups. One thing led to another, and Mr Stillman dines at one of his own restaurants once a week — an empire that he began with no knowledge of the hospitality business.  (edible geography; via MetaFilter) ¶ As a rule, we have no time for books claiming that the Internet is sending us to hell in a handbasket, but an intriguing review by Michael Thomsen of David Thorne’s The Internet Is a Playground may require making an exception. (The Millions)

¶ Propeller Theatre comes to Boston. Edward Hall’s all-male Shakespeare troupe is into the artifice of acting, and also sticking with the text. Son of Sir Peter is too busy to worry about being overshadowed by famous parent. (Globe; via Arts Journal) ¶ “Personally, I can’t think of the last time I saw a show that really seemed truly new and boundary-breaking to me.” At the Guardian, Alexis Soloski calls for a new critical vocabulary. It may be a while before “avant-garde” means anything again. ¶ Reviewing Tony Kushner’s new play, Terry Teachout snipes. (About Last Night) 

Even if “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide” were 15% better than “Lear,” Mr. Kushner’s play would still have profited from being stripped of its lengthy digressions and superfluous subplots, most of which serve only to obscure the play’s good parts.

¶ We’ve been scratching our heads about Thomas Pynchon for more than forty years, so we’re grateful to Mark O’Connell for his theoretical breakthrough: reading a tediously endless novel with occasional flashes of set-piece memorability induces the literary equivalent of Stockholm Syndrome! When we picture the sullen young men who carry these books around, we get it entirely. (The Millions)  ¶ Bharati Mukherjee writes about her new novel, Miss New India, at Speakeasy. We’re intrigued by the theme of internal migration, in which people who aren’t too far from peasant roots approach the “Western” world in cosmopolitan cities. This is precisely what happened in that Western world two hundred years ago.

¶ “The Mother’s Curse” — a genetic problem that sounded a lot like hemophilia, but we kept reading: it’s mitochrondrial build-up, which in males remains unaffected by natural selection. Unless, that is, something on the Y chromosome fights back. (Not Exactly Rocket Science) ¶ We are all alcoholics now: in her compelling essay, “The Drunkalogues,” Denise Grollmus shows how pervasively the twelve-step program has influenced the template of alcoholic and drug-dependent memoirs, almost as though AA were running a Rod Serling program. Denise hails David Carr’s The Night of the Gun as an alternative tale, one built not so much on the power of drugs as on the faultiness of self-protecting memory. (The Rumpus) ¶ Poetic Justice? Maud Newton’s 40th birthday will coincide with Judgment Day. Given her antecedents — her “ninth great-grandmother” was accused of witchcraft in the Seventeenth Century, not to mention her peppily dogmatic mother — she’s not really surprised. (The Awl)

New: ¶ Quelques mots sur la procédure new-yorkaise, in which our criminal procedure is explained to French readers, so that they can follow the Day-Ess-Kah imbroglio. Do admit: it’s much easier to say that than Dominique &c. (Diner’s Room; via Mnémoglyphes) ¶ While we are great fans of the tonic tone taken by The Epicurean Dealmaker, there is a rotting edge to his calls for those who would pitchfork bankers to put down their implements and consider “serious reform.” That rotting edge is a faith, increasingly unsustainable, in the way that the American legal system does business. Claiming that bankers need protection from lynch mobs, moreover, is insulting to black Americans.

Have a Look: ¶ Understanding Arab Culture Through Typography @ Brain Pickings. ¶ What Your Literary Tote Bag Says About You. (Vol. I Brooklyn; via Marginal Revolution)

Noted: ¶ Michael Stipe @ Interview. ¶ The “ultimate green burial.” (Mother Jones; via The Morning News) ¶ James Ward is thorly unimpressed. (I Like Boring Things)

Gotham Diary:
Going Ahead Anyway
Friday, 20 May 2011

Friday, May 20th, 2011

After taking yesterday off — off from writing here — I hardly expected to prolong my absence. But what I expected to be a simple delivery turned into a big deal, and I had to summon the help of Ray Soleil. This led, unaccountably, to standing in the rain at four in the afternoon, trying to hail a cab. It doesn’t get much dumber than that! Great things were accomplished on the shopping front, as it turned out — the economy will live, if I have anything to do with it — but I went from sipping late-afternoon tea with Ray to freshening up for an evening movie with Kathleen, and now it’s midnight, or nearly. I am reduced to writing off the top of my head.

The great conundrum of keeping a diary, online or otherwise, is that, the more you have to do that’s interesting, the less time there is for writing it up. So I’ll beg your indulgence while I check off some names. I’ve read William Deresiewicz’s wonderful book about Jane Austen, which really was hardly what I expected to do after writing about his college-blues piece in The Nation. I liked A Jane Austen Education better at the beginning than at the end; my own take on the class issues that Deresiewicz raises, particularly in the part of his memoir that’s attached to the discussion of Mansfield Park, can only be described as quite similar but entirely different. Forced to put the entire difference simply, I think I’d say that I haven’t given up on the salubriousness of reminding indolent and privileged kids about the workout that the guillotine got in 1794.

This afternoon, I glanced at William Pfaff on George Kennan and John Lukacs: it would be hard to add a fourth name to this august trio; almost everybody younger than I am (all those smart men who write for Condé Nast publications, for example) seems, in comparison, clever but facile, and strangely out of it — yet another Idiocracy alert, I suppose.

The movie that we went to see was François Ozon’s Potiche, which I think ought to be renamed La Reine, because that’s exactly what Catherine Deneuve is here, combining in one person Elizabeth II and Helen Mirren. There is in this film the most transcendent sense of acting without impersonation. How many movies has Deneuve made with Gérard Depardieu? He’s heavier than ever, but she lost a few pounds for this film. Still, there’s a sense in which it doesn’t matter what she looks like. It goes without saying, by the way, that Ozon has made the definitive Seventies period movie.

Now I’m going to turn in with Judith Martin on Venice. We were told about this book at a cocktail party last week. We — and I mean Kathleen and I, here — responded with praise for Donna Leon. Once I had No Vulgar Hotel in my hot little hands, I went straight to the index, where I found two entries for my favorite baroque opera impresario. Neither was anywhere near hardly expected. Here’s a snip from the first.

Fans of Donna Leon’s mysteries give themselves away by their abnormal interest in mundane places — a counterintuitive desire to visit police headquarters or a sudden cry of “Look! That’s where Guido buys flowers for Paola.”

It gets better.

Systematically Important
Friday, 20 May 2011

Friday, May 20th, 2011

¶ Floyd Norris writes sardonically about what may prove to be the dooming flaw of late-stage capitalism: the strange political power of big-time losers (ie banks) to compel governments to bail tham out. ¶ It’s not clear why now, but “China Admits Problems With Three Gorges Dam.” Opposition within China to this monumentally disruptive state project has never been quieted. Orville Schell applauds; we wonder what Henry Kissinger is thinking. ¶ We’ll believe that Peter Thiel is a genuine innovator when we learn that he is experimenting with different business models, especially as regards rentier investment. Until then, we’re still happy to applaud his $100,000 grants to whizbang students willing to drop out of college to write their own educations.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Thursday, May 19th, 2011

¶ We’re taking the day off, but we wouldn’t want you to miss the great write-up of Christine Lagarde, the formidable Frenchwoman who may fill out Daniel Strauss-Kahn’s term at the IMF. ¶ Department of Duh: privatizing prisons does not save taxpayers’ dollars. Don’t expect conservative ideologues, who insist on the right to be as brain dead for as long as their Soviet counterparts were in the last century, to pay much attention to the findings.