Blow for grammar sanity from BBC News Katty Kay

Oxford educated Katty Kay sets a very good example in her pronunciation of the English language which she does not sound in the colorful but lower educational rank manner of one of her colleagues.

In an extraordinary grammatical development, blonde beauty and BBC presenter in Washington Katty Kay spoke the following words quite clearly today when commenting on the fact that Hillary Clinton has managed to breast the finishing tape today and rack up enough superdelegates to add to her pile of committed delegate that she now becomes the official nominee of the Democratic Party for the Presidency of the United States, a position she will retain unless Bernie Sanders manages to somehow shame the delegates who were supposedly committed to him but abandoned ship over the weekend to come back to where they belong if he is to replace her as nominee in a new casting of delegate votes at the Convention, where there will no doubt be a lively ruckus given the strong preference of many young voters for him and the feeling that the premature nomination of Clinton has depended on keeping out independents from many states voting booths, who otherwise would have replaced her with Bernie in the total count to date.

“Whether you are a Democrat or a Republican this is a (sic) historic day in American politics.”

“A historic” instead of “an historic” is clearly the most sensible and euphonious choice given the fact that the “h” in historic is pronounced by all persons of education, and given the rule that “a” should change to “an” only when the next word begins with a vowel and never when preceding a consonant, despite the exception with the word “history” which for some reason has crept into use in recent decades after being eradicated earlier, and rather annoyingly has been blessed as valid by many dictionaries.

A blow struck for verbal civilization by a blonde goddess of the airwaves!

Update: Hillary Clinton did the same! – In announcing her incipient victory as notified by the AP she spoke the following words:

“According to the news we are on the brink of a historic, ‘istoric (sic) unprecedented moment – but we still have work to do don’t we?”

Did the repeat of the word “historic” leaving out the “h” the second time betray her uncertainty as to whether she was sufficiently democratic to sound the educated pronunciation of the two words?

We will probably never know. But she certainly deserves credit for saying “a historic” loud and clear, for what may be the first time in recent memory that a US politician used the obviously more correct and educated formulation!

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Dwight Garner Suggests Jim Harrison Is An Interesting Writer

Jim Harrison received the ultimate accolade, by being written up by Dwight Garner who was his editor and remained in touch

Here is a fairly convincing write up of the recently departed Jim Harrison showing with excerpts that he was an interesting writer, though the poetry except seems rather prosaic, ending with a rather good anecdote.
Note the change in headline for this story noted at the end – a sudden streak of puritanism on the part of the Times editors?

An Appraisal: Taking Big Bites of Jim Harrison’s Voracious Life

Jim Harrison Credit Jeff Topping for The New York TimesYou didn’t read the fiction of Jim Harrison, who died on Saturday at 78, for plot. You read it for its appetites. Mr. Harrison was our poet laureate of lumbering desire. His books declared: If you aren’t taking big bites out of whatever life is on offer to you, you are doing it wrong.

Mr. Harrison tattooed every available surface, in his prose, with ideas and impressions about almost everything: sex, death, hawks, paperback books, Hawaiian shirts, getting lost in the woods, mustaches, guns, red wine, illness, roast beef sandwiches and long-form love.

He wrote about macho guys. (He preferred the word “nacho,” like the corn chips.) But they were sensitive and easily wounded macho guys, given to pratfalls of every variety. He liked to give the good lines to women. In “The Beast God Forgot to Invent” (2000), one of his many books of novellas, a woman complains about a central drawback of Manhattan life: “There’s no nature in New York, and the closest you can get is an orgasm.”

Mr. Harrison was a seemingly casual writer; his long sentences flowed like streams. These streams were rocky with wit. I reread his first novel, “Wolf” (1971), not long ago. Mr. Harrison’s hero finds himself driving endlessly across Nevada, and he comments: “I see why they test atomic bombs in this state — if they didn’t I would, only in more central locations.”

My favorite Harrison novels remain his early ones: “Wolf,” “A Good Day to Die” (1973), “Farmer” (1976) and “Warlock” (1981). This might be sentimentality speaking. I read them at an impressionable age, and they meant — and mean — a lot to me.

They offered a worldview, suggesting that to live well was to live with curiosity and humor. They spoke a subliminal truth about writers, that the good ones are rarely the pretentious ones.


‘A Good Day to Die’
‘The Beast God Forgot to Invent’
‘Off to the Side’
‘The Raw and the Cooked’
‘Dead Man’s Float’
These novels set the tone for his oeuvre. He wrote about men moving through the woods and sometimes across the country, on offbeat personal missions or on the run from heartbreak or misfortune. Emotionally and intellectually, they have many self-inflected wounds to lick.

Mr. Harrison was a more cerebral writer than he is often given credit for. In his memoir, “Off to the Side” (2002), he reads books as if he were shoveling coal into a blast furnace. He wore his erudition with enviable lightness.

That memoir is a reminder that Mr. Harrison’s nonfiction, to some of us at any rate, is nearly as valuable as his fiction. His essays are collected in two books, “Just Before Dark” (1991) and “The Raw and the Cooked: Adventures of a Roving Gourmand” (2001). Both are worth possessing.

Mr. Harrison paid a price for his appetites. His suffered from gout, and his essay about it, “One Foot in the Grave,” collected in “The Raw and the Cooked,” is probably the finest we have about this malady. This is the kind of pain, he declared, “where you limp toward the bathroom calling out for pets that died in your youth.”

Worse, you have no one to blame but yourself. “In bed, after the hysterical removal of the boot, with the foot propped up,” he wrote, “you stare at this blushing, throbbing appendage and do not say ‘Why me?’ because you know so poignantly the answer.”

Mr. Harrison’s later fiction and poetry was increasingly concerned with illness and mortality. Not that he didn’t try to stay limber. In 1988, when he was 50, an interviewer from The Paris Review asked him if he was beginning to lose his stamina.

He seemed to find this question absurd, so he gave an absurd reply. “Actually, it’s increased over what it was 10 years ago,” he said. “I usually dance a half-hour a day to Mexican reggae music with 15-pound dumbbells. I guess it’s aerobic, and the weights keep your arms and chest in shape.”

In a later book, a character thinks, “I have certainly rounded third base and am headed for home plate, which is a hole in the ground.” But his fiction was never morose.

In his most recent book of poems, “Dead Man’s Float,” he remained committed to whatever pleasures were still on offer. He wrote:

My work piles up,
I falter with disease.
Time rushes toward me —
it has no brakes. Still,
the radishes are good this year.
Run them through butter,
add a little salt.

I knew Mr. Harrison, not well, just a bit. I edited some of his pieces for The New York Times Book Review, when I was an editor there, and once in a while he’d call when he was in town.

He was a jumbo presence. People gawked at him when he strolled down the street, not because they knew who he was but because they felt they should know who he was. He looked famous.

I was at dinner with him once, at a trendy Manhattan restaurant, when he lit a cigarette. This was about a year after the city’s smoking ban began. Since he got away with it, diners at surrounding tables quickly lit up, too. Briefly, it was a big, happy, smoky room.

Then a waiter came out and made everyone stub out their Marlboros. Except for Mr. Harrison. The waiter brought him a nice ashtray and told him he could keep going. It was hard to say no to anyone who seemed that happy.

A version of this article appears in print on March 29, 2016, on page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: The Mark Left When Desires Outlast a Man .

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Reviewer Kakutani Writes As Well About Hope Jahren As Hope Does About Plants, Love and Science

She wrote a book one has to read and keep, with writing that expresses all the glory and life of plants

A really good book, well written, in fact superbly written, it is clear, inspired Michiko Kakutani to write as well as the author she is praising.

Review: ‘Lab Girl,’ Hope Jahren’s Road Map to the Secret Life of Plants
Books of The Times By MICHIKO KAKUTANI MARCH 28, 2016

Each word counts, none gives the reader pause, because unfamiliar, yet all is here.
Well done, Kakutani, surviving the slog of reviewing for so many years to remain a fine, truthful writer herself.

Hope Jahren’s book Lab Girl is a winner, inspiring even a jaded but still brilliant Times reviewer to tone it down to truth pure and simple

Vladimir Nabokov once observed that “a writer should have the precision of a poet and the imagination of a scientist.” The geobiologist Hope Jahren possesses both in spades. Her engrossing new memoir, “Lab Girl,” is at once a thrilling account of her discovery of her vocation and a gifted teacher’s road map to the secret lives of plants — a book that, at its best, does for botany what Oliver Sacks’s essays did for neurology, what Stephen Jay Gould’s writings did for paleontology.

Ms. Jahren, a professor of geobiology at the University of Hawaii, conveys the utter strangeness of plants: these machines, “invented more than 400 million years ago,” that create sugar out of inorganic matter — wondrous machines upon which human life itself depends.

She describes the sound of plants growing in the Midwest: “At its peak, sweet corn grows a whole inch every single day, and as the layers of husk shift slightly to accommodate this expansion, you can hear it as a low continuous rustle if you stand inside the rows of a cornfield on a perfectly still August day.”

She describes the miraculous ability of a cactus to sit, under a blazing desert sun, waiting years for rain: It sheds “its roots to prevent the parched soil from sucking all the water back out of it,” then begins to contract, until its spines “form a dense and dangerous fur protecting what is now a hard, rootless ball of plant.”

She explains why the leaves at the top of a tree are smaller than those below, allowing “sunlight to be caught near the base whenever the wind blows and parts the upper branches.” And she explains why most forests have natural boundaries: Centimeters outside their borders, “we find too little water, too little sun, too much wind or cold for just one more tree.”

By crosscutting between chapters about the life cycle of trees and flowers and other green things, and chapters about her own coming-of-age as a scientist, Ms. Jahren underscores the similarities between humans and plants — tenacity, inventiveness, an ability to adapt — but, more emphatically, the radical otherness of plants: their dependence on sunshine, their inability to move or travel as we do, the redundancy and flexibility of their tissues (“a root can become a stem if need be, and vice versa”).

Ms. Jahren’s own childhood in a small Minnesota town, where there was snow on the ground nine months of the year and where most residents worked for a huge slaughterhouse, was filled with silences. Her great-grandparents had arrived there from Norway, and she writes that “vast emotional distances between the individual members of a Scandinavian family are forged early and reinforced daily.” It was not unusual for her and her brothers “to go days without anything to say to each other.”

Her sanctuary was the laboratory of her father, who taught introductory physics and earth science at a local community college. There she discovered the rituals and magic of science: She embraced its rules and procedures and the attention to detail it demanded. Science gave her what she needed: “a home as defined in the most literal sense, a safe place to be.”


Hope Jahren Credit Erica Morrow
A workaholic who also had manic-depression, Ms. Jahren chronicles her progress through college and graduate school and a succession of teaching jobs, conveying both the obsessive fervor she brought to her work and the often absurd hoops that research scientists must jump through to obtain even minimal financing for their work.

She communicates the electric excitement of discovering something new — something no one ever knew or definitively proved before — and the boring scientific grunt work involved in conducting studies and experiments: the days and weeks and months of watching and waiting and gathering data, the all-nighters, the repetitions, the detours, both serendipitous and unfruitful.

For more than two decades, her co-conspirator in these adventures has been the steady, loyal and eccentric Bill Hagopian, her lab manager and alter ego. Together, the pair scour Salvation Army stores to find old camping equipment to use in their first lab, take students on some hilariously awful field trips, burrow through rotting leaves in the Canadian Arctic, and trek through Ireland ( a place “so saturated with green that it is the things that are not green that catch one’s eye”), carefully gathering more than 1,000 moss samples that will be cavalierly dumped in the garbage by an airport security officer.

Ms. Jahren writes about her single-minded dedication to her work — her determination to “make my life into something” — and then suddenly falling in love, at 32, with another scientist named Clint Conrad, whom she will marry.

She speaks of the “great cosmic fire” that overtakes her during manic episodes and her fears of navigating pregnancy without her usual medications. And she writes of her fears about balancing life and work, and the surprise of having “the truly valuable pieces” of her life “fall from the sky undeserved.”

Along the way, she comes to realize that her work as a scientist is also part of a larger enterprise. She is not like a plant, but like an ant, “driven to find and carry single dead needles, one after the other, all the way across the forest and then add them one by one by one to a pile so massive that I can only fully imagine one small corner of it.”

As a scientist, she goes on, she is indeed just an ant, “insufficient and anonymous, but stronger than I look and part of something that is much bigger than I am”: She is part of the continuum of scientists who have each built upon their predecessors’ work and who will hand down their own advances to the next generation.

Follow Michiko Kakutani on Twitter: @michikokakutani.

Lab Girl

By Hope Jahren

290 pages. Alfred A. Knopf. $26.95.

A version of this review appears in print on March 29, 2016, on page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: Where Every Tree Is as Lovely as a Poem .

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Essence of Good Writing is Form, Not Content: Italian Novelist Offers Home Truth

Paris Review Cover Spring 2015 – containing the reluctant author in the spotlight sharing her wisdom about words

A remarkable excerpt from the Paris Review of Spring 2015 expresses this truth, usually hidden from the media, that words are the essence of good writing, not simply their application to conveying information, however accurately. And certainly not what the author eats for breakfast!

Who, one wonders, is this exquisitely perceptive artist, an Italian, for Heaven’s Sake! (Exactly the impulse Ferrante deplores!)

From an interview in the Spring 2015 issue of The Paris Review. Elena Ferrante is the pseudonym of an Italian novelist whose books include The Days of Abandonment, My Brilliant Friend, and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, all published in English by Europa Editions. Conducted by Sandro Ferri and Sandra Ozzola Ferri, her publishers, this is the first in-person interview Ferrante has given.

interviewer: Critics have praised your writing for its sincerity. How do you define sincerity in literature? Is it something you especially value?

ferrante: As far as I’m concerned, it’s the torment and, at the same time, the engine of every literary project. The most urgent question for a writer may seem to be, What experiences do I have as my material, what experiences do I feel able to narrate? But that’s not right. The more pressing question is, What is the word, what is the rhythm of the sentence, what tone best suits the things I know? Without the right words, without long practice in putting them together, nothing comes out alive and true. It’s not enough to say, as we increasingly do, These events truly happened, it’s my real life, the names are the real ones, I’m describing the real places where the events occurred. If the writing is inadequate, it can falsify the most honest biographical truths. Literary truth is not the truth of the biographer or the reporter, it’s not a police report or a sentence handed down by a court. It’s not even the plausibility of a well-constructed narrative. Literary truth is entirely a matter of wording and is directly proportional to the energy that one is able to impress on the sentence. And when it works, there is no stereotype or cliché of popular literature that resists it. It reanimates, revives, subjects everything to its needs.

interviewer: How does one obtain this truth?

ferrante: It definitely comes from a certain skill that can always be improved. But to a great extent, that energy simply appears, it happens. It feels as if parts of the brain and of your entire body, parts that have been dormant, are enlarging your consciousness, making you more sensitive. You can’t say how long it will last, you tremble at the idea that it might suddenly stop and leave you midstream. To be honest, you never know if you’ve developed the right style of writing, or if you’ve made the most out of it. Anyone who puts writing at the center of his life ends up in the situation of Dencombe, in Henry James’s “The Middle Years,” who, about to die, at the peak of success, hopes to have one more opportunity to test himself and discover if he can do better than what he’s already done. Alternatively, he lives with the desperate feeling expressed in the exclamation of Proust’s Bergotte when he sees Vermeer’s little patch of yellow wall — “That is how I ought to have written.”

interviewer: You were saying that the reasons for staying in the shadows have changed a bit.

ferrante: I’m still very interested in testifying against the self-promotion obsessively imposed by the media. This demand for self-promotion diminishes the actual work of art, whatever that art may be, and it has become universal. The media simply can’t discuss a work of literature without pointing to some writer-hero. And yet there is no work of literature that is not the fruit of tradition, of many skills, of a sort of collective intelligence. We wrongfully diminish this collective intelligence when we insist on there being a single protagonist behind every work of art. The individual person is, of course, necessary, but I’m not talking about the individual — I’m talking about a manufactured image. What has never lost importance for me, over these two and a half decades, is the creative space that absence opened up for me. Once I knew that the completed book would make its way in the world without me, once I knew that nothing of the concrete, physical me would ever appear beside the volume — as if the book were a little dog and I were its master — it made me see something new about writing. I felt as though I had released the words from myself.

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Hermione Hoby Blog
Amanda Stern
“The Neapolitan novels came easily. Ferrante wrote 50–100 pages a time without stopping to revise. Which is as it should be. “The greater the attention to the sentence,” she says, “the more laboriously the story flows.””
Talk with the translator Ann Goldstein (is it she that makes the prose so hypnotising?) and James Wood.

““My friendship with Lila began the day we decided to go up the dark stairs that led, step after step, flight after flight, to the door of Don Achille’s apartment. I remember the violet light of the courtyard, the smells of a warm spring evening. The mothers were making dinner, it was time to go home, but we delayed, challenging each other, without ever saying a word, testing our courage. For some time, in school and outside of it, that was what we had been doing. Lila would thrust her hand and then her whole arm into the black mouth of a manhole, and I, in turn, immediately did the same, my heart pounding, hoping that the cockroaches wouldn’t run over my skin, that the rats wouldn’t bite me. Lila climbed up to Signora Spagnuolo’s ground-floor window, and, hanging from the iron bar that the clothesline was attached to, swung back and forth, then lowered herself down to the sidewalk, and I immediately did the same, although I was afraid of falling and hurting myself. Lila stuck into her skin the rusted safety pin that she had found on the street somewhere but kept in her pocket like the gift of a fairy godmother; I watched the metal point as it dug a whitish tunnel into her palm, and then, when she pulled it out and handed it to me, I did the same.”

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Borges on Johnson and Boswell: NYRevBooks triumphs again

All the qualities of excellent writing, including simplicity

Without a shred of pretension or rivalry, or awe – truth about writers as people

Greatness set aside as a consideration, a clear view by an equal

The lack of pretension in the writing at the New York Review of Books – possibly reflecting the fact authors and their work are treated by equals, not by admiring or envious hacks – never comes off so well as in this chatty little essay by Borges on Johnson and Boswell, which speaks more home truths per square inch than many books on the same literary heroes.

Commenters (all very intelligent) point out errors of fact, partly inevitable since Borges was blind at this point as spoke without notes from memory.

A Lecture on Johnson and Boswell
Jorge Luis Borges

So even Boswell had a paunch as a young man, according to Rowlandson.

Dr. Johnson was already fifty years old. He had published his dictionary, for which he was paid 1,500 pounds sterling—which became 1,600 when his publishers decided to give him one hundred more—when he finished. He was slowing down. He then published his edition of Shakespeare, which he finished only because his publishers had received payments from subscribers, so it had to be done. Otherwise, Dr. Johnson spent his time engaged in conversation.

….The truth is, in spite of his numerous accomplishments, he had a natural tendency toward idleness. He preferred to talk rather than write. So, he worked only on that edition of Shakespeare, which was one of his last works, for he received complaints, and satirical responses, and this made him decide to finish the work, because the subscribers had already paid.

Johnson had a peculiar temperament. For a time he was extremely interested in the subject of ghosts. He was so interested in them that he spent several nights in an abandoned house to see if he could meet one. Apparently, he didn’t. There’s a famous passage by the Scottish writer, Thomas Carlyle, I think it is in his Sartor Resartus—which means “The Tailor Retailored,” or “The Mended Tailor,” and we’ll soon see why—in which he talks about Johnson, saying that Johnson wanted to see a ghost. And Carlyle wonders: “What is a ghost? A ghost is a spirit that has taken corporal form and appears for a while among men.” Then Carlyle adds, “How could Johnson not have thought of this when faced with the spectacle of the human multitudes he loved so much in the streets of London, for if a ghost were a spirit that has taken a corporal form for a brief interval, why did it not occur to him that the London multitudes were ghosts, that he himself was a ghost? What is each man but a spirit that has taken corporal form briefly and then disappears? What are men if not ghosts?”

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Poet and Vampyre – Andrew McConnell Stott’s masterpiece

Every authoritative sentence of The Poet and the Vampyre intrigues

Unpromising subject matter is gold in hands of academic alchemist

The Claudio Arrau of biographical writers

The Poet and the Vampyre: The Curse of Byron and the Birth of Literature’s Greatest Monsters by Andrew McConnell Stott Pegasus Books Dist by W.W.Norton Publicity Claiborne Hancock 504-2824 $28.95 Release Date September 15 2014

Not sure that the cover (if it is the final cover) or the sub title will convey the nature or the merit of this book, one that no reader will wish to end.

Not sure that the cover (if it is the final cover) or the sub title will convey the nature or the merit of this book, one that no reader will wish to end.

As you can tell from the above fumbling subheads, it is hard to say why perfection is good, because it goes far beyond words, even if words are its means. Stott appears to be some kind of all knowing, all understanding walking dictionary of a human being, whose pen can take what others would see as mundane matter and transform it into universality, transcending the unique and turning it into the common interior experience of us all.

One doesn’t just read Stott’s account of this handful of literary travelers, one experiences and “relates” to every line, because he masterfully manages to turn what might otherwise seem a remote time and place and social venue – the events are two hundred years past – and make it as real as a film script, full of the same present attitudes and unpredictable provocations as might incite our responses today in front of a movie screen.

In the case of the diabolical Byron, around whom the tale is built, his disgracefully arrogant and unfeeling treatment of Claire, the mother of his child Allegra, to whom he seems to feel both unbridled attraction and personal disdain, is so unjust and inhumane that one wonders if the great poet had any genuine humanity at the core of his being, despite his virtuosic pen. He sounds like the most sociopathic of artists, one whose dedication to his art and his personal foibles at the expense of all around him arises not just from talent but from utter lack of feeling for the rest of humanity as anything more than servants to his cause.

Meanwhile the clever angle of this book is that it is told mostly from the point of view of the lesser talented who orbit the great poet, either as an employed physician, John Polidori, who accompanies him as he sets out for Switzerland to escape his creditors, never to return to Britain, or Claire, whose intelligence Byron ignores in making her simply one of the horde of wombs he deposits his superiority in, and then casts off.

Shelley and Mary figure large enough in the pages of this marvelous book but what carries us along is not the gilded bad behavior of Byron but the predicament of Polidori, who is tormented by an unslaked thirst for fame on his own account which disrupts his relationship with Byron and eventually ruins his life, even though he is quite able as a novelist and even as a physician.

In other words it is not just the marvelous command of words that Stott shows in this superbly written book which holds one’s attention and makes one fear it ever coming to an end, but the fact that it deals with human frailty and folly and the vulnerability of ordinary mortals, not just the antics of the renowned and the rich (Byron was both) with whom they associated at their peril.

If our fumbling attempt to grasp and convey the merits of this wonderful book seems in disarray and half baked that is fine, because it will serve as exemplifying the exact polar opposite of the book, whose virtues are impossible for a lesser writer than the great and irreplaceable Stott to convey short of simply quoting some passages from it, which we will now do, using a camera.

From the very first, you know that you are in the hands of a master dramatist and story teller with accurate facts at hand, and a measured tone where only the story itself is enough to create the greatest interest.

Randomly chosen page shows the consistent interest and fast moving pace – one adjective often summarizing entire aspects of an event – which marks Stott's story (page 92)

page 93

page 158

page 159

page 170

page 171

page 172

page 173

Truth as discreet jest

Did you catch the drollery of this account of impulsive and variable minds and natures encountering each other and life? This is the gentle humor of a tale of human foibles in action when written with magisterial but tolerant deadpan by a grandmaster of language who with breathtaking accuracy encapsulates their interior workings in describing their exterior antics. There is no need for explicit scenes and dialogue when one or two words can suffice, a feat of compression which explains as much as it observes and in itself evokes the rueful chuckle of sad recognition that there but for the Grace of God go we.

For the truth about people described in precisely the right word or words can as we all know be gently amusing as well as satisfying intellectually. This is so because if it is perfectly apt, if it is so penetrating a reflection of human nature that is so often contrary to the rules and ideals of good behavior, that we both laugh at and love the person described, if it is so right in tone, then one accepts it with joyful recognition at its inconsistency and is moved by it to amusement as well as empathy just as one unquestioningly receives, admires and and is moved by fine music. (What the hell are you talking about? Please fix. -Ed)

Thus this great tale turns into a vivid celebration of the poignant reality that we are all in the same world boat together, subject to the same whims and delusions and sufferings and yearnings and joys as the literary actors on these well wrought pages.

In this way the book is as much a masterpiece as the works of anyone in the uniquely talented group whose adventures Stott describes so well. Like masters of the piano such as Rubinstein or Arrau this artist of biography can take the manuscripts of other people’s lives and turn them into beautiful music, a symphony where every phrase is absorbing and moving.

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Perfect Travel Piece: Tub Tale by Patricia Marx

Amusing truthteller proves Twain principle, that comics rule in travel reporting

She’s beautiful as well, but that isn’t relevant-is it?

You can’t write a travel tale – or any first person report – better than Patricia Marx’s Tale of a Tub in the New Yorker this week (Jan 25 Sun week, Feb 3rd 2014 edition). But it’s hardly surprising – look for whom she has worked – first woman on Harvard Lampoon, and then a stint on SNL that she loved.

Nothing beats a comic sensibility for adding a sweet layer of icing to the literary cake, the sugar of a writer’s humorous reaction to experience. Not the kind of navel centered narcissism which quickly bores the reader silly but the other-directed, deadpan pointing up of the human comedy that dots life and this story from beginning to end, the kind of fact-as-jest, comment-as-you-go which makes the dullest material come alive.

Patricia Marx does it in the deft modern manner, smarter even than Twain. An ideal mix of writer and subject. We find out what happened and why, and are constantly amused as we go along at the foibles and antics of other people, noted without the least unkindness or superiority.

(Intrusive personal comment:) Who is the lucky man who lives with this ideal partner? Some kind of scientist, it seems. Presumably a paragon of virtue, otherwise she would pick someone else from the horde applying. (End IPC)

Her writing shows moral and social virtues of the highest kind. Above all, it shows understanding, great understanding. And what higher virtue is there in a woman than that?

As the great arbiter Samuel Johnson often remarked, according to Mrs Thrale, “the size of a man’s Understanding might always be known by his Mirth”.

Patricia Marx, Our Far-Flung Correspondents, “A Tale of a Tub,” The New Yorker, February 3, 2014, p. 26

Beautiful, smart and a sense of humor – Patricia Marx hits it out of the park

Call him Ishmael. Call me Insane. Some time ago, I had a hankering: wouldn’t it be lovely to take a break from the hurly-burly of landlubber life and the oppressive, never-ending connecting with everybody and everything? What could be more restorative than to voyage across the Atlantic aboard a merchant vessel, and, as Melville said, see the watery part of the world? How great would it be to have the time to read “Moby-Dick” instead of just talking about it? Oh, really? Now that I am about to board the Rickmers Seoul freighter (Chinese-built, German-managed, Marshall Islands-registered), being a passenger on a cargo ship seems a lot like being an inmate in a prison, except that on a ship you can’t tunnel yourself out. Please try to imagine the privations I will brave for three weeks on this six-hundred-and-thirty-two-foot-long, thirty-thousand-ton hunk of steel as it galumphs across the sea from Philadelphia to Hamburg, with brief stops in Norfolk (Virginia) and Antwerp. There will be no Internet, no e-mail, no telephones, no organized entertainments, no Stewart or Colbert, no doctor, no anyone-I-know, and no Diet Coke. There will be twenty-seven crew members, most from the Philippines, including a captain and a handful of officers from Romania, and, piled high on deck and deep in the holds, an assortment of cargo consignments from the world over that might include yachts, submarines, airplane fuselages, generators, turbines—everything, in short, that would elate a boy of five. There are no freighters that haul vats of sushi or Yonah Schimmel knishes, but somewhere out there is a vessel that carries La Mer face cream, and I hope the Rickmers Seoul collides with it.

After checking in at the Philadelphia Tioga Marine Terminal with a stevedore named Rhino, I teetered up a steep gangway to the main deck, where I was greeted by a broad-shouldered, doughy Romanian (age thirty-two) with a handsome face and a clipboard. In his orange jumpsuit, he looked like a giant Teletubby. “I am Paul,” he said. “I am chief man.”…

“What does the chief man do?” I asked.

Rest at

Deft perfection

Deft perfection 2

Deft perfection 3

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Patronizing the Patronizer: Sehgal Blows Up De Botton

Right or wrong, a neatly puncturing review

Offering more wise and practical philosophy on daily life and its major topics than any other latter day Socrates, Alain de Botton gets trashed by some puppy on the NYTimes book review? Hardly seems fair!

Today the New York Times Book Review carries a fairly spectacular debunking of Alain De Botton, the graceful thinker who has deconstructed the virtues of and lessons inherent in challenging topics ranging from what Proust has to offer us to travel, architecture, love, work, philosophy and a few other topics now being dealt with by co-authors in his School of Life series from Picador (How to Stay Sane by Philippa Perry, How to Change the World by John-Paul Flintoff), although they may have been been upstaged by the series from Oxford University Press in philosophy and psychology (A Slap in the Face: Why Insults Hurt and Why they Shouldn’t by William B. Irvine,Pursuing the Good Life: 100 Reflections on Positive Psychology by Christopher Peterson., What’s Wrong with Homosexuality? by John Corvino) which puts the self help genre on a higher, more informed plane.

Alain de Botton’s work has always seemed rather impressive to us in its limpidly thoughtful style, both thorough and entirely accessible, and we are always surprised by the way in which he can turn something which seems too banal to have much depth into analysis which makes telling points. So what if it is self help? We love self help! We like to read people who have advice to offer even if it seems quite wrong for us, since it opens up interesting questions, and De Botton seems right and often original in what he says. He has tackled a huge range of basic subjects to turn them into day to day philosophy and he often makes excellent practical suggestions – for example in his treatment of religious faith he suggests a temple for atheists in London.

But trust an editor of the Book Review to have no patience with de Botton’s respect for supposedly trivial topics which inevitably excites the snobbery of the literate, who are used to complex and multilayered treatments of the eternal verities of daily life and its preoccupations. What we like in the following is the resolute puncturing of what the author as reader sees as the inflated, even grandiose conception of De Botton of himself as philosopher and truth seeker that he proceeds to prick with his full quiver of darts.

We happen to think this broadside is misdirected and De Botton is a not especially arrogant, valiant tiller of fields at the base of the mountain of truth and it is generous of such a talented thinker (one born wealthy, educated with the elite and visibly good with the ladies) to devote himself so assiduously to the difficulties of the less philosophically literate. But no one can gainsay the firmly balanced stance of Sehgal as literary archer as he fires off his sharpest arrows.

Patronizing the Arts: ‘Art as Therapy,’ by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong By PARUL SEHGAL 239 pp. Phaidon. $39.95. Published: December 13, 2013

Who’s afraid of Alain de Botton? At 43, he’s already an elder in the church of self-help, the master of spinning sugary “secular sermons” out of literature (“How Proust Can Change Your Life”), philosophy (“The Consolations of Philosophy”), architecture (“The Architecture of Happiness”). He has a remarkably guileless face and a friendly, populist vision of art. Why then do I keep checking my pockets? And why the grumbles that he condescends to his subjects and regards his readers, as the British writer Lynn Barber put it, as “ants”?

De Botton’s new book, “Art as Therapy,” written with the historian John Armstrong, begins with grim news. Every day, honest, upright citizens “leave highly respected museums and exhibitions feeling underwhelmed.” It’s a scandal, especially since the authors firmly believe art exists to make people “better versions of themselves.” They dream of a day when art can be prescribed for specific “psychological frailties” (including poor memory and pessimism), when museums can be redesigned as gyms for the psyche, grouping works not by style but by the feelings they depict and the muscles they work. Captions will whisper prompts like: “Don’t expect valuable journeys to be easy,” for Frederic Edwin Church’s painting “The Iceberg.”

“Art as Therapy” is handsome and depressing. It lays bare the flaws in de Botton’s method, chiefly that, well, he does regard his readers like ants. How dispiriting it is to be told that we cannot appreciate mystery, to see complexity cleared away like an errant cobweb. True, perverse, playful reductiveness has always been de Botton’s shtick — he’s just never done it so badly. The grant proposal prose saps all the fun from the proceedings. What should come across as cheeky sounds unhinged: “The true aspiration of art should be to reduce the need for it”; “We should revisit the idea of censorship, and potentially consider it . . . as a sincere attempt to organize the world for our benefit.”

Irritatingly, the authors do have a point: there is a hunger to believe art has a pragmatic purpose in our lives (witness the excitement over studies showing that going to museums makes us smarter and reading literary fiction makes us more empathetic). And of course art consoles and nourishes and does everything Armstrong and de Botton say it does. The problem is that we don’t need them as middlemen, and we certainly don’t need paintings puréed down to pablum and spoon-fed to us. But Armstrong and de Botton think so little of us, they design museums like Temple Grandin designed humane slaughterhouses, to minimize our fear and confusion. And in sparing us the horror of feeling “inadequate,” they deprive us of a chance at rapture, to work to possess the work ourselves. (Recall the caption on that painting of the iceberg: “Don’t expect valuable journeys to be easy.”)

I’m reminded of the historian Leo Steinberg’s reaction to Jasper Johns’s early work, specifically “Drawer,” in which a drawer is embedded in a canvas. Steinberg’s essay is an elegant, instructive tantrum, the kind of thing one imagines actually entices people to look at pictures. It is modest, frank and very funny on the variety of feelings an interesting image can elicit. Steinberg passes from confusion to contempt to terror (“I am alone with this thing, and it is up to me to evaluate it”) to a puzzled sort of pleasure. “It is a kind of self-analysis that a new image can throw you into and for which I am grateful,” he writes. “I am left in a state of anxious uncertainty by the painting, about painting, about myself. And I suspect that this is all right.” It is, in fact, wonderful. What would Armstrong and de Botton make of “Drawer”? “Open yourself to new experiences,” maybe. Worse: “Search within.”

Pity; the idea of knowledge as a process not a pellet is something that used to matter to de Botton. It’s something he has forgotten (and can be forgiven for forgetting; unreliable memory being, after all, the first “frailty” mentioned in “Art as Therapy”). If de Botton were to consult his Proust again, he’d encounter the painter Elstir, whom he treated tenderly in his breakout book, “How Proust Can Change Your Life.” Elstir’s message is this: “We cannot be taught wisdom, we have to discover it for ourselves by a journey which no one can undertake for us, an effort which no one can spare us.” No one, not even Alain de Botton.

Parul Sehgal is an editor at the Book Review.

Well, we aim only to point to well written articles and reviews, not to say whether they are true or not. But is the prose quoted really grant proposal style? We don’t find it that heavy footed, do we? And surely there is room for explaining art to the many that come to the Guggenheim, for example, and say in response to Christopher Wool’s current exhibit, “My child could do better.” (Not that they may not be right in that case!)

De Botton is a teaching philsopher and he tries to teach people who know too little and want to appreciate more about modern art, it seems, and it is surely not wisdom that he is trying to inculcate but the very open minded exploration that Parul Sehgal himself wants to encourage.

Of course we haven’t read the Alain De Botton book or even looked into it, so we may be quite wrong. But at the very least this is a finely wrought example of how to blow a book out of the water without sounding unfair.

Let’s hope it is justified. Let’s hope that Mr Sehgal is not a writer on the make wielding knives to make himself look good. For in this case, we doubt that all publicity is good publicity. A lot of potential readers are going to be put off.

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Seduced by Naples – Rachel Donadio’s Perfect Capture

All this and an active volcano too!

A remarkable piece on the front of the New York Times Travel section today (Dec 15 Sun 2013) shows how to write a masterful introductory description of a city – in this case, Naples, and all its gritty virtues. Perfectly structured, so it reads as easily as swallowing oysters, the piece works in every standard necessary topic in a palatable, unnoticeably easy way in the course of writing what almost seems like a spontaneous letter to a friend.

We also like a piece that starts with one sentence.

Congratulations, Rachel, even though you didn’t know that Bellini was a Romantic and not a Baroque composer!

Seduced By Naples By RACHEL DONADIO
Published: December 13, 2013

It doesn’t take long to understand Naples.

Once you make your way through the unruly traffic, honking horns, locals shouting in thick dialect across alleys lined with wet laundry, past racy black lace garters on display in shop windows, shrines to the Madonna with blue neon and plastic flowers set into palazzo walls, churches decorated with carved skulls, women squeezed into their shirts and spike heels, immigrants selling knockoff bags, helmetless teenagers on mopeds racing the wrong way down slippery one-way streets, and everywhere the smells of strong coffee, fried dough, fresh clams and the breeze blowing in from the sea — it is immediately clear that two primal forces drive this magnificent chaos of a city: life and death.

Maybe it’s the location, set on that wide bay that looks out on movie-set-perfect Capri and its poorer cousin, Ischia, and the most storied active volcano in the world at the city’s shoulders, Vesuvius, inescapable memento mori. Or maybe it’s the history of colonization — first by Greeks, then Romans, Normans and after them the Spanish, and later even Italians, and the lingering presence of organized crime. But this is a city that has seen it all, survived most of it, and, if you have the patience to explore it, will win you over and never let you go.

Its spell can be powerful. More than elegant, restrained Florence or show-offy Rome, with its perfect, ruined beauty, and even more than otherworldly Venice, I would argue it is earthy, squalid, slightly menacing Naples that is one of the most romantic cities in the world.

[spoiler title=”(Click the tab to continue this text)” open=”0″ style=”1″]I FIRST SAW NAPLES years ago, when I was working as a babysitter in Rome. It was winter. The city’s famous Christmas market was in full swing, as it is now. I was traveling with a group of scholars and archaeologists. They took us to every church in town, one blurring into the next, and I don’t remember much, besides being warned to hold on to my bag. (Always good advice. In Naples, street crime is fast and real.) Still living in Rome, I returned the following summer and stayed in the leafy middle-class neighborhood of Vomero, once a stopping point for Grand Tourists. “See Naples and Die” was the motto in that era, although Henry James’s Daisy Miller didn’t make it past Rome. In the hotel room, one window had a sweeping view onto the bay below, with the ships gliding in the harbor under a summer sun, and the other opened onto the towering hillside above. Captivated by the city’s enticing mix of looming enclosure and open possibility, I vowed to return to Naples again and again. And so I have.

In the years I lived in Rome, whenever I wanted to escape that swampy city, with its oppressive world-weariness, its perennial ability to seduce but never to surprise, I headed for Naples — and still do — a surefire adrenaline rush, a slap in the face, a semifailed state only an hour south by train.

Sometimes I start at the Café Mexico in Piazza Dante, for a perfect espresso or a “caffè shekerato,” a mix of coffee, ice and sugar shaken into a thick cream and filled with so much caffeine and sugar that it makes the back of your head throb. I calm my nerves by browsing in the secondhand bookstores that line the passageway leading to Piazza Bellini, named for the master of Neapolitan Romantic music, into the ancient heart of the city, “Spaccanapoli,” from the Italian word “spaccare,” to split. It takes its name from what is now Via dei Tribunali, slicing down the middle of the old city first settled by the Greeks.

The area is now a warren of dingy, narrow streets, churches, pizzerias and shops selling Naples’s famous Christmas crèche figurines. There are countless Holy Families, but also little clay workers at their trades — the battery-operated baker forever putting his tiny loaves into the oven, the fishmonger with little silver fish — as well as statuettes of football stars and politicians, sometimes engulfed in the red flames of hell.

Deep in Spaccanapoli lies one of the great wonders of Naples: Caravaggio’s “Seven Acts of Mercy,” surely one of the strangest and most breathtaking paintings in all of art history, a weird chiaroscuro tableau that unites an old man suckling a woman’s breast, a disembodied pair of dirty feet, men in armor struggling in the semidarkness, and high above them a mother and child and two angels, Neapolitan boys really, who cling to each other midfall in a strange and tender embrace.

The unfathomable painting is tucked into the tiny church of Pio Monte delle Misericordie, inside a palazzo so unassuming and smog-stained that an unwitting visitor could walk past it entirely. In contrast, the city’s other great Caravaggio, “The Flagellation,” at the Capodimonte Museum, is showcased with drama, placed at the end of a suggestively long hallway of galleries. It captures the moment just before Jesus’s tormentors unleash their fateful blows. Every time I’ve visited the Capodimonte, once the hunting lodge of the Bourbon rulers of Naples and now one of the world’s great museums, it is nearly empty, a sign that this city remains an acquired taste, not completely discovered.

The tourists who do come, many of them embarking for only a few hours from cruise ships, tend to flock to Naples’s Archaeological Museum, with its vast rooms of ancient statuary and frescoes from Pompeii as fresh as the day they were painted. (Don’t be surprised if many rooms are closed; the museum says it lacks funding for guards.)

Here, you can see the Secret Cabinet of ancient erotica collected by the aristocratic Farnese family and kept hidden from public view for centuries. There are little bronze men with giant phalluses, images of couples in flagrante, a satyr pleasuring himself. Some items were amassed by a Borgia cardinal with interesting taste, but most were discovered at Pompeii and nearby Herculaneum, leading Christian moralists to believe that those cities were destroyed by volcano and mudslide as divine punishment for lasciviousness. Many currents of thought have emerged from Naples over the centuries. Moralism was never one of them.

ONE PERFECT SPRING DAY a few years ago, some friends and I took the funicular to the former monastery of San Martino, high above the city. From the garden, there is a stunning view of the sweep of the bay — the crumbling, close-packed houses, satellite dishes, the spires of churches with plants sprouting from their cupolas, the industrial port and, in the distance, Vesuvius. San Martino’s central courtyard, with slightly unkempt grass and fruit trees, is decorated with comely skulls. Its walls are heavy with marble detailing, the work of Cosimo Fanzago, the master sculptor of the Neapolitan Baroque and a favorite of Anthony Blunt, the British art historian who pursued a second, even more baroque, career as a Russian spy. The marble is elaborately worked into ripe apples, ornate flowers, curved shapes suggestive of both male and female genitalia. Even in the cloister, one finds another inescapable essence of Naples: the coupling of sex and death.

Wandering around San Martino that day, a friend and I came across a room with landscape paintings of the Bay of Naples, the luminous stretch of coastline that first caught the attention of the Greeks in the first millennium B.C. They made land just up the coast from Naples and named their settlement Cuma after Kymi, the village on the Greek island of Evia from which they first set sail. (Naples, Neapolis, the new town, came later.) Kymi is also on a bay that rises up a steep hillside. The landscapes, old and new, echo each other. And maybe, I thought to myself that day, the history of the West begins with a handful of Greeks setting sail for farther shores, searching for a place that reminds them of home.

After Cuma, the Greeks moved down the shore to Naples and called this settlement Parthenope, after the siren who tried to lure Odysseus to the rocks. Even today, you can tell that Naples was once a Greek city. It is the quality of light, which is stronger and clearer and feels more ancient and essential here — and in all of Magna Grecia, the Southern Italian regions that were once Greek colonies — than the light of Rome, with its softer pinks, or the steady, subtle light of the Italian north, with its countless shades of gray.

For centuries, Naples lorded itself over Rome by asserting its Greek origins. “By staying Greek and not being a political player in the region at all, Naples became everything Rome was not,” Peter Robb writes in “Street Fight in Naples,” his excellent 2011 book, which brings the dramatic history of the city to life. “Neapolitans were free not to be serious. Free to cultivate their Greek garden, and not unaware how deeply Romans remained in awe of Greek culture. Being Greek was a kind of revenge, a soft power of its own kind.”

Naples is also a realm of the spirit. In “The Aeneid,” written by a poet from Mantua who felt most at home in Naples, observing the power politics of Rome from afar, Aeneas stops at Cuma on his way back from the Trojan War before founding Rome. There, the Cumean Sybil, so beautifully depicted by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel ceiling, advises Aeneas how to descend to the underworld from nearby Lake Avernus to visit his father, but warns of the danger of the journey. “Offspring / of gods by blood, Trojan Anchises’ son, / The way downward is easy from Avernus … but to retrace your steps to heaven’s air, / There is the trouble, there is the toil,” she says. Lake Avernus is still here today, now in the semisuburban sprawl outside Naples, surrounded by a NATO outpost.

These days, the grotto of the Sybil — where Ingrid Bergman’s character has a breakdown in “Voyage to Italy,” Roberto Rossellini’s 1955 film — is an ill-marked site reachable on confusing local roads, their signs obscured by rushes, in the grim areas that stretch from Naples northward up the coast and are the stronghold of the Camorra, the Neapolitan Mafia. A friend and I once went on a rainy afternoon. A handful of mustachioed guards waved us past without asking us to pay. Inside, we were the only visitors. The cave is a long tunnel with a few narrow slats for light. From the woods, you can see the ocean below. I found the site profoundly depressing. The rain, the weight of history, filled me with sadness, a sense of the futility of human endeavor. Had so many centuries of civilization led only to this, a Mafia-infested area of ugly concrete, bad roads, poor zoning?

THE CITY’S PAST sometimes seems to shine brighter than its present. After the quieter years in the 13th and 14th centuries of the Angevin French, who left their mark on some of the city’s most stately medieval architecture, it was the Bourbons who helped turn Naples into the cosmopolitan capital of the vibrant Spanish empire, which it remained for centuries, a hub of commerce and learning. The young Cervantes was stationed here for five years as a marine, and the Quartieri Spagnoli, now a bustling working-class neighborhood, was built to house the Spanish troops back in the days of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, the period when southern Italy was under Spanish rule. Back then, the Italian south was far richer than the impoverished north. After Italy’s unification in the mid 19th century, living standards and per capita income in the south plummeted. To this day, many in Naples believe the south was better off before unification.

Naples now has a left-wing mayor, Luigi de Magistris, a former anti-Mafia magistrate, who has tried to solve the city’s persistent garbage crisis, a phenomenon deeply linked to organized crime. The city has never been easy to govern. In 1547, the Neapolitans revolted against the imposition of the Spanish Inquisition. A century later, Neapolitan peasants revolted against their Spanish overlords, furious that they were being impoverished through taxes to pay for Spain’s foreign wars. In 1943, when the Nazis began rounding up Neapolitan men, the furious women of Naples fought back, successfully driving the Nazis out of town, albeit on a killing spree, in a rare mass citizens’ revolt against the German occupation.

In “Naples ’44,” his remarkable diary from a year spent as a British intelligence officer in the city at the end of World War II, Norman Lewis recounts tales of mothers prostituting their daughters and Allied officials making devil’s bargains with local gangsters. Everywhere, people looked for miracles, believing the intercession of the saints would save them, while one smiling priest takes another tack, selling umbrella handles carved from the bones of the saints. “He, too, had to live,” Mr. Lewis concludes.

In Naples, survival instincts alternate with leaps of faith. It is here that the faithful flock to the cathedral to see the miraculous liquefaction of a vial of the blood of San Gennaro, and where even St. Thomas Aquinas, the theologian most committed to the demands of the rational, believed that a painting of the crucifixion in the church of San Domenico Maggiore spoke to him. Somehow, in Naples, this all makes sense. Here, the line between the realistic and the supernatural is forever blurred.

The history of conquest has also left its mark. “O Francia o Spagna pur che se magna,” the old Neapolitan saying goes: It doesn’t matter if we’re governed by France or Spain, so long as we eat. This Neapolitan realpolitik, a cynicism about power, can seem dangerously close to nihilism. And yet this city is bursting with life. The food especially lingers in the mind — fresh fish carpaccio and Sancerre at the Pescheria Mattiucci on a cool evening on the cusp of spring; the paccheri alla Genovese with beef and caramelized onions at L’Europeo di Mattozzi; a simple margherita pizza at Di Matteo, its dough just slightly springy, its marinara sauce not too salty or sweet (“this pizza,” a friend once said, “is like a kiss on the forehead”).

I once read my horoscope in the Naples daily newspaper, Il Mattino. “Love: It’s useless to try to find a logical meaning, ask questions and analyze with the mind what’s happening, the answers are only in your heart,” it read. “Work: Chaos reigns supreme and you just can’t catch a break. Put everything aside and wait for help from the next moon.”

ONE WINTER DAY I was with friends at the pastry shop Scaturchio, famous for its sfogliatella, delicate layers of pastry stuffed with ricotta and orange peel and dusted in confectioner’s sugar. We messily tried to eat as we walked, laughing so hard that we blew the powdery white sugar all over our dark coats. We passed the Gesù Nuovo church, with strange mystical symbols carved in its rocky facade, and entered the cloister of the church of Santa Chiara, a garden lined with colorful majolica scenes from the Old Testament.

Evening was approaching. High above the cloister walls, the sky turned a pinkish blue. The world felt far away. The sounds of the city faded. Outside, boys were playing soccer in the churchyard. There we were in Naples, like so many before us, suspended between the sacred and the profane, the silence of the cloister and the chaos of the world. Campa un giorno e campalo bene. Live for the day and live it well.

Rachel Donadio is a culture correspondent for The New York Times, based in Paris. From 2008 until August she was Rome bureau chief.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: December 14, 2013

An earlier version of this article misstated the time period that the Bay of Naples first caught the attention of the Greeks; it was the first millennium B.C., not the first century B.C. It also misstated part of the name of the church that houses Caravaggio’s “Seven Acts of Mercy”; it is Pio Monte delle Misericordie, not San Pio delle Misericordie. And it gave an incorrect description of the composer Bellini, after whom Piazza Bellini was named; he was a composer of Romantic music, not Baroque music.[/spoiler]

A few factual mistakes or not, this is a very fine travel piece, shorn of all selling short of its colorful description of what Naples offers as experience.

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Matthew Kassel Attends a Proust Reading

Hard to Nail It, But He Does in Short Transom Item

One student at the School of Visual Arts has talent!

Proust reader Ira Glass (there was a nice pencil sketch in the printed Observer, but we don’t see it on line. Unattributed. Perhaps Kassell did it? Many of many parts, seems possible. No, it seems it is by an anonymous student at the School of Visual Arts among those sitting on the sidelines. We add it above.)

Bedtime Stories
Nomadic Proust reading celebrates the centennial of ‘Swann’s Way’

By Matthew Kassel 11/12 7:28pm

Ira Glass crawled into a king-size bed in a suite at the Wythe Hotel in Williamsburg last Friday night and began to read from the beginning of Marcel Proust’s novel Swann’s Way, published 100 years ago.

It was the first event in a nomadic, marathon reading, organized to celebrate the centennial of the first installment in the French writer’s seven-volume masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time, and the evening featured a number of Proustian devotees, including Paris Review editor Lorin Stein, comedian Mike Birbiglia, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux president Jonathan Galassi and Antonin Baudry, cultural counselor of the French Embassy, which planned the seven-day affair.

“When you hear someone read these texts, you get to know the person, how he thinks, how he feels inside,” Mr. Baudry told the Transom, explaining how he went about recruiting readers for the event. “I was curious about who they were.”

In many ways, the scene was fitting—“For a long time, I used to go to bed early,” goes the first sentence of the book—if a little cramped. Madeleines were served alongside plates of French cheese and charcuterie, and the wine flowed and flowed. Students of the School of Visual Arts sat on the sidelines, sketching the readers as they made their way through the first 100 or so pages of the book.

But there are reasons why a marathon reading of Proust’s work is inappropriate, especially in the digital age, when the last thing we need is to rush through a work that takes time to properly absorb. Proust’s sentences are so exacting, so meticulous, so tortuous—the longest, from the fifth volume, is just short of four meters long and would wrap around a bottle of a wine seventeen times, as Alain de Botton points out in How Proust Can Change Your Life—that they demand prolonged attention, time with oneself.

That is not to say the three-hour kickoff event, featuring both French and English readings, was a letdown. Mr. Stein was a delightful presence, interpreting the cadences of Proust’s lines with aplomb. And Paul Holdengraber, the director of the New York Public Library’s interview series, was hilarious as he brought out the humor in the passage in which the narrator anguishes over being sent to bed without a goodnight kiss from his mother.

“I nearly choked when I read this passage,” Mr. Holdengraber told us at the end of the night. “It’s so powerful.”

Still, on Friday evening, Proust wasn’t getting the attention he deserved, as attendees snapped iPhone photos and sent tweets—Proust’s natural enemy, one would think—out into the digital ether. Attendees also chatted distractingly in the back of the room, near the madeleines and wine.

“We are distracted from distraction by distraction. Proust asks for a form of attention that I don’t think we really have today,” Mr. Holdengraber said. “If you read Proust, you have to commit yourself to the act of reading something that you may not get.”

If we were going to appreciate Proust, it wasn’t going to be in a crowded eighth-floor hotel room in Brooklyn.

At one point, near the end of the night, someone in the back of the room accidentally activated the Siri personal assistant software on his iPhone, which spoke out loudly as a reader made her way through Swann’s Way.

“Sorry,” the phone said dryly. “I didn’t get that.”



Five times more interesting than the actual event, probably, and a time saving of three hours or more, including travel time.

Probably all too true that few people still have the capacity for giving full attention these days. But that is what books offer. Long may they survive.

Also, an interesting Kassell review

Here is a review from the same Kassell, which punctures one of our favorite targets:

Dog Songs

Mary Oliver

Penguin Press, 144 pp., $26.95

There’s a combative little essay in Blue Pastures, Mary Oliver’s excellent 1995 prose collection, that has stuck with me through the years. “Nothing in the forest is charming,” Ms. Oliver writes. “And nothing in the forest is cute.” It’s a particularly damning argument against the way we so often perceive the natural world, reducing it to something that is “powerless,” “capturable,” “trainable.”

I thought about that essay when I picked up Ms. Oliver’s new book of poetry, Dog Songs, a paean to the peculiar joy of canine companionship. Unleashed dogs, she writes, “are a kind of poetry themselves.”

This is a lovely idea. But for the most part, these 35 short poems—complemented by a smattering of pen-and-ink illustrations by John Burgoyne—are a refutation of that notion. For a woman who lives the examined life, as Emerson had it, Dog Songs feels remarkably light. Through imagined conversations and cartoonish depictions, Ms. Oliver turns her subjects into cloyingly anthropomorphic caricatures of themselves. She leashes the dogs in Dog Songs in a veil of sentimentality. In other words, she makes them cute. —Matthew Kassel


Hard to burst a cloud, but Pop!

Have to go get that Blue Pasturesby Mary Oliver, written before her mind went soft, it appears.

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Nabokov Shows Joyce How to Do It: Lolita

Complete with bushy eyebrows, James Mason as the perfect Humbert Humbert contemplates the truth where else but in the bath

If you would like to see a long manuscript with annotations explaining all the references which you might otherwise not recognize – in fact, won’t recognize – obtain a copy of The Annotated Lolita from Vintage, edited with preface, introduction and notes by Alfred Appel, Jr. (first printing 1991, a revised and corrected version of the edition published in 1971 of the classic perennial, or rather eternal work of entertainment, interest, story telling and literary artistic genius first published in America in 1978).

It is hard not to conclude that Nabokov outshines both his major literary forbears, Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man of 1857 and James Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922. Professors of English literature may struggle to bring their interpretation of Nabokov and indeed the others to the fore, but we prefer to remain modestly the appreciative reader who simply finds exquisite joy in Nabokov’s every word, in a text which surely has to be the most delicious and nutritious literary entertainment since Shakespeare, and all of it on the page instead of having to be acted out to get the full dose of excellence.

These two pages alone enough for a thesis – but first, the outrageous secret of the inner child

Here’s a modern version of Lolita, drawn from the web. Would Humbert approve?

A 21st Century Lolita with eyes wide open. Of course, this apparent naivete is not at all the style of the original Lolita, whose response is far more eager to be knowing than non Humberts would expect.

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To those who notice the gap here, Jerome K. Jerome speaks

To those who have noticed a summertime interruption in the output here of fine examples of literate, smart and memorable writing, we can only quote Jerone K. Jerome in explanation:

“I like work; it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours.”

Equally relevant is another fine quote from the same exemplary author-philosopher:

“Idleness, like kisses, to be sweet must be stolen.”

In fact, he has another on the same theme, on which he is an expert, it seems clear:

“There is no fun in doing nothing when you have nothing to do.”

Or similarly:

It is impossible to enjoy idling thoroughly unless one has plenty of work to do.”

Just in case you are beginning to think that Jerome is a one horse pony, here is another deeply telling remark:

“It is easy enough to say that poverty is no crime. No; if it were men wouldn’t be ashamed of it. It is a blunder, though, and is punished as such. A poor man is despised the whole world over.”

and this:

“It is in our faults and failings, not in our virtues, that we touch each other, and find sympathy. It is in our follies that we are one.”

For which he offers an example:

“It is so pleasant to come across people more stupid than ourselves. We love them at once for being so.”

Lest you think the man is a sentimentalist, however, we have this also:

“People who have tried it, tell me that a clear conscience makes you very happy and contented; but a full stomach does the business quite as well, and is cheaper, and more easily obtained.”

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James Wolcott Finds the Right Words for French Women

Hits Vocabulary Jackpot in Current Vanity Fair

Perfect Paragraph Achieves Impossible Peak

Like God, His Genius Creates What Otherwise Would Not Exist

If invention is the mother of delight then readers of Vanity Fair’s latest issue – July 2013, just arrived in Manhattan mailboxes this week – have reason to be glad they kept up their subscription, for it contains one of the greatest introductory paragraphs ever written. This tour de force manages to nail down what it is about French women which is stylistically inimitable and renders them the most desirable treasure for all who love women the way men love women, and does it so well that it suggests that if James Wolcott did not exist, no one else could have pulled this brilliancy out of thin air.

Well done James, this is what writing is for – to capture the response of the mind to matter.

French women Dont Get Fat (Review)

Liberté, Fraternité, Supériorité
Frenchwomen don’t get fat, as the 2004 best-seller with that title informed the world—and the flood of Gallic how-to books hasn’t stopped. Les Françaises, they claim, do absolutely everything better: parenting, aging, sex, even celibacy, according to a new entry. Not so vite, says M. Wolcott.

Wish you were there…

Ah, Frenchwomen: so soignée, so C’est si bon, so clicky as they walk by. Everything about them—their poise, their refinement, their cool dispatch, their trim, tidy figures, their yachty scarves, their precision manners, their purposeful glances, their insinuating silences, their hair, their skin, their scent, the invisible caress of their lingerie, their avoidance of circus tattoos and purple henna—inspires marvel and envy. Although world-class cities from Rome to Barcelona, Buenos Aires to Singapore, New York to Dubai, can pride themselves on being lustrous strongholds of exalted femininity, it is the Frenchwoman—in particular the Parisian Woman—to whom homage is paid and of whom study is made. In the historical imagination the Frenchwoman has held a monopoly on mystique à la mode ever since Louis XIV made Paris the fashion and coiffure capital of creation in the 17th century. She exemplifies an ethos of personal expression that advertises itself as an aspirational ideal, an exacting calling. Yet it is more than an immaculate, enigmatic façade that the Frenchwoman grooms and wields; she is the caretaker of a sensuous intelligence, a creaturely knack for how to live that purrs from the pages of Colette and Françoise Sagan and pouts from the screen (and no one can pout like a French actress, whose moody lips cry out for a trombone). French film and novels may no longer fire the ardor that they did in the 50s and 60s, but over the last decade nonfiction publishing has taken up the slack and then some. The “Frenchwomen Know Best” genre has become quite the publishing racket, if I may speak baldly, a spate of titles addressing every aspect of the fine arts of bourgeois upkeep and flirty intrigue.

[spoiler title=”Click the button for the rest” open=”0″ style=”1″]

Whether it be subtle panache (Lessons from Madame Chic: 20 Stylish Secrets I Learned While Living in Paris, by Jennifer L. Scott), intimate indulgence (Joie de Vivre: Secrets of Wining, Dining, and Romancing Like the French, by Harriet Welty Rochefort, Two Lipsticks and a Lover, by Helena Frith Powell), no-nonsense, non-hovering parenting (Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting, by Pamela Druckerman, French Twist: An American Mom’s Experiment in Parisian Parenting, by Catherine Crawford), or growing older gracefully (Chic & Slim Toujours: Aging Beautifully Like Those Chic French Women, by Anne Barone), the Frenchwoman seems to have it all sewn up. “No French woman willingly works,” Helena Frith Powell writes in Two Lipsticks and a Lover. “French women have better things to do with their time, like waxing their legs and seducing other people’s husbands.” Unlike her neurotic American sisters, a French bachelorette would never be caught dead moping on the sofa, digging into a tub of Häagen-Dazs because some doofus didn’t call, and she never goes out looking as if she just crawled out of a laundry hamper. And unlike some of her slaggy British cousins, she doesn’t get bombed on alcohol and barf on the pavement as the capper to an evening’s entertainment. She remains mistress of her domain, avoiding the terrible modern fate of both sexes: becoming a sad sack. French Women Don’t Get Fat, as Mireille Guiliano detailed in her 2004 best-seller, and, according to Jamie Cat Callan, French Women Don’t Sleep Alone. But, hey, not so vite. Here comes Sophie Fontanel to instruct the reader in The Art of Sleeping Alone (this August, from Scribner), a confessional reverie that shot up the sales charts when it was published in France. Leave it to a Frenchwoman to convert even giving up sex into an elegant gesture that reeks of worldliness and sends up a smoky wreath.

She’s not in New York

“For a long while, and I really don’t wish to say when it was or how many years it lasted,” Fontanel writes, “I chose to live in what was perhaps the worst insubordination of our times: I had no sex life.” In an interview with The Telegraph (U.K.), Fontanel, an editor at French Elle and an author of other books, dispensed with the veil of secrecy, specifying that her period of celibacy had lasted 12 years—an awfully long layoff, though falling well short of Cal Ripken Jr.’s consecutive-game streak. The first step on the road less traveled is taken at a ski resort, where the prospect of going to bed with a man named Jonas for a scenic tryst “sent [her] body into lockdown.” As her body closes up shop as an act of resistance to another borderline compulsory round of huffing and puffing, her spirit is uncaged. Standing at the window, the vista of pure white snow providing the perfect movie/novel setting for a personal epiphany, Fontanel vows to give up the bedroom grind and be reborn as virgin wool. “My life would be soft and fluffy. I was through with being had.” Celibacy proves to be as rejuvenating as a spa visit. A white candle seems to illuminate her from within. After only a few weeks of non-coitus, her face un-scrunches, her skin radiates, her spine straightens. She submerges in lavender milk baths, “my breasts upthrust like buoys signaling a human presence along a seacoast,” hugs her pillow at night as if spooning with a man, and burbles like a schoolgirl over Robert Redford, a platonic crush that crowds out any need for a real man or passable facsimile. Which, needless to say, gets on the nerves of those around her, those friends and couples who remain intensely invested in the French game of amour that has kept Yves Montand and Catherine Deneuve employed lo these many decades. In a sex-saturated culture, adult chastity is the ultimate nonconformity. Fontanel sighs: “Sabine and William, doleful swingers, who absolutely had to stay together to have someone to swap—even they found me peculiar.” This has the makings of a fine boulevard comedy (a libertine circle confounded to find a reborn virgin in their midst, an affront to every lizardy value they hold dear), but before long the memoir becomes too Gallic for its own good, wandering through the meadows of reverie and picking pensées. It isn’t the author’s fault that for many Americans the primary text on celibacy is the episode of Seinfeld—let the French lean on their philosophers; we in America have Seinfeld reruns to light the way—where George Costanza involuntarily gives up fornication and turns into a genius savant, speaking Portuguese, teaching the physics of hitting to Yankees sluggers, and so forth. As Jerry explains, previously George was extracting what he could from a leafy scrap of his brain, the rest of it obsessed with sex; now he had access to the entire lettuce head. The reverse happens to Elaine, who boycotts sex and becomes a duh-faced idiot, the trash buildup in her head making it hard for her to think. Fontanel gets a little fuzzy herself as the book goes along, as if experiencing a spiritual form of jet lag, but that’s the French for you.

Although Fontanel’s ode to celibacy would appear to run counterclockwise to the erotic gamesmanship of the typical Frenchwoman guide, where the stratagems of seduction require a mandolin finesse, and the mingled aroma of adultery (perfume, cologne, and animal odor) wafts from every set of crumpled bedsheets, it’s rooted in a similar spirit of renunciation. It’s about drawing clean lines of demarcation. “[The Frenchwoman’s] culture exalts the iconoclast, the nonconformist, the artist and original thinker—all of which makes it more natural for her to say No to prevailing pressures,” writes Debra Ollivier in Entre Nous: A Woman’s Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl. “This ability to say No—graciously, thoughtfully—reinforces her natural discretion: What she eventually does let into her life is more a reflection of herself—and by default more authentic.” On this side of the Atlantic, a sloppy Yes prevails over a curt No, and discretion has gone the way of the dinosaurs, which is where these books satisfy a craving. Although the “Frenchwomen Know Best” genre abounds in useful tips, morale uplifters, and finger-wagging dos and don’ts, the usual self-help panoply of makeover advice, I suspect that the source of its continuing appeal lies in its being a species of dream literature. It invites the reader to holiday in a holodeck of romantic possibility and try on a new you, much as Downton Abbey and Jane Austen revivals promote time travel to a dressier, less buffeted, more orderly theater of operations. It’s a trip to Paris in which you never leave your head. The poignant thing is that while female readers in the States are pursuing a French course in self-improvement, just try finding a book aimed at male readers keen on learning the cool, sophisticated ploys of Frenchmen, who have plenty of foxy tricks of their own that we American lugs might profitably learn from. It’s a completely lopsided market. Then again, most American men probably couldn’t even cough up the name of a familiar Frenchman except for maybe Gérard Depardieu, and him you wouldn’t dare to emulate.



The real reason why French women are slim

A recent survey showed that french women have the lowest BMI (body mass index) of all European countries. The average BMI is around 23 . In the UK it’s 26. You are considered overweight (medically speaking) when it’s over 25 and underweight when it’s below 18.5.

So which country is the fattest?

So which country is the fattest?

Poland, land of the most beautiful women in the world, is 25.93 for women, 26.67 for men.

The US figure for men is 28.46, 28.33 for women.

India is 20.99 fopr men, 21.3 for women. Maybe the lesson is to eat curry.

Here’s a map of the world you can cursor over to see BMIs for each nation:

This map shows World trends in age-standardized mean Body Mass Index (BMI) 199 countries over 28 years.

The worldwide prevalence of obesity has nearly doubled since 1980, according to a project that tracked risk factors for heart disease and stroke. The study, published on February 2011 assess how body mass index (BMI) changed between 1980 and 2008.

Key findings

In 2008, women in the world were obese (with a BMI above 30 kg/m2), compared to women in 1980.
Pacific island nations have the highest average BMI in the world, reaching 34-35 kg/m2.
Among high income countries, USA has the single highest BMI (over 28 kg/m2 for men and women). Japan has the lowest BMI (about 22 kg/m2 for women and 24 kg/m2 for men).
Among high-income countries, between 1980 and 2008, BMI rose most in USA (by more than 1 kg/m2/decade), followed by New Zealand and Australia for women and followed by UK and Australia for men.
Women in a few Western European countries had virtually no rise in BMI (last 28 years).

Source: Body Mass Index (BMI) by Country, Global Burden of Metabolic Risk Factors of Chronic Diseases Collaborating Group, viewed 6th February, 2011.

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Blair on Bergner – Exemplary Appreciation

Elaine Blair Lands on Front Page with Provocative Pen

Salutes Bergner’s What Do Women Want? with Full Dress Review

Remarks on its Revelations and Limitations are Appetizing, not Substituting

Sex the Old Fashioned Way:  Fred Astaire & Cyd Charisse 1953 - The Band Wagon

Sex the Old Fashioned Way: Fred Astaire & Cyd Charisse 1953 – The Band Wagon

It is hard to think of a review in the New York Times Book Review so accomplished as Elaine Blair’s treatment today of Daniel Bergner’s provocative volume What do Women Want? It’s not just that it is superbly written, with words both novel and yet precise for every idea she introduces. It’s structure is so sound, with a perfect lead in to the subject, a novel and interesting book which overturns – if its thesis is correct – one of the pillars of modern thought, that women’s libido is less lively than men’s. which places that topic within the context of three thousand years of scientific inquiry into the puzzle. Then Ms Blair briefly describes a seminal experiment with monkeys which reverses the finding that males initiate sex – not if the cages are swapped for larger enclosures – and then picks out the pivotal concern most readers will have, which is whether living together inevitably defeats sexual interest in women. It does, even faster than in men, the book reports.

She then describes more fascinating tidbits which serve Bergner’s conclusion, to which all the very mixed commentary and studies he reports from experts all over points, in this book anyway, which is that female humans are as often raring to go as their male counterparts. Both are repressed by their overriding human concern for emotional intimacy and companionship, on top of their child rearing commitment where there is progeny. So the current way of thinking about women as interested in copulation only insofar as it hooks a man to stick around while the babies are reared must give way to accepting they are as randy as men are, and even to entertain seriously a newly popular theory that their slowness to reach climax is specifically designed by Nature to encourage multiple partners in one session.

Blair doesn’t argue with any of these suggestions, but asks, where does it all leave us – should women all join swingers clubs or dally with the piano tuner? In other words, what should we do about female lust, if it is equal to men’s? She merely points out that the mass of tentative findings and speculations gathered by Bergner seem to reflect the age old tendency of male scientists and even female ones of finding what they are looking for in this context. But pointing out that the assumption that men are hard wired for sex and women only for intimacy and babies is passe doesn’t have to lead to a wholesale rethinking of human relationships. It just means we can toss out the tired conception that negotiating the big long term considerations has to start as soon as sparks fly. Better, she concludes, to engage in mutual lust on an equal basis and leave the rest till the next morning.

Why is this a perfect review, if it merely repeats the core thinking of the book and adds its own moral to the story? Because it is not only beautifully expressed but conveys the shape and thrust of the book and a couple of its highlights without destroying our interest in buying it. If anything, it whets our appetite by presenting it as treasure chest of material on a topic which Begner has researched and written well but which leaves us, in the end, to make up our own minds about its angle and import. Far from wrapping up his contribution to discourse in a tidy package which then relieves us from spending money on the whole work, her review inspires one to go buy it and see how it affects one’s own attitudes in the key area of emotional life.

Ms Blair describes a book which provides talking points for all who read it and which is faulted only for its uncriticsl enthusiasm for its topic, and its innocence of all the hostile politics and cultural overlay which has distorted understanding over the millennia. Her kind encapsulation and lively response deserves as many kudos as the book which provoked it, which we must immediately obtain. And kudos too to the clever headline writer.

I’ll Have What She’s Having -‘What Do Women Want?’ by Daniel Bergner – By ELAINE BLAIR – Published: June 13, 2013 210 pp. Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers. $25.99.

Galen of Pergamum, the great physician and medical researcher of antiquity, was one of many learned men of his time who believed that women had to have an orgasm during sexual intercourse for conception to occur. For 1,500 years this was the scientific consensus. How could we have continued to believe in the necessity of female orgasm when there must have been all kinds of evidence to the contrary? No one is sure, according to Daniel Bergner. When it comes to the study of female sexuality, scientists have tended to see what they expect, or want, to see, and there are fewer established facts than you would think. “Despite all the powers of contemporary science,” Bergner writes, “the seemingly straightforward anatomical question, is there a G spot? remains unanswered.”

So what are scientists seeing now? Bergner’s previous book, “The Other Side of Desire,” is a thoughtful study of unusual sexual inclinations — fetishism, sadism, attraction to children or amputees. In his new book, “What Do Women Want?,” which appears to have grown out of his earlier research, Bergner turns to what you might say is the largest group of sexual deviants: women, whose strange sexual parts and desires never seem quite as mainstream as men’s. Squeezed into these 200 pages are interviews with psychologists, psychiatrists and primatologists who have been “puzzling out the ways of eros in women”; a capsule history of ideas about female sexuality from biblical times to the present; the story of the so-far elusive hunt for a Viagra-type aphrodisiac for women; a discussion of the different types of female orgasm; and the personal accounts of a dozen or so ordinary women who talk about their sex lives and fantasies. The experiments and data Bergner writes about vary widely and don’t all point in the same direction, but he sets this tour of contemporary sex research against one particular shibboleth: the notion that women are naturally less libidinous than men, “hard-wired” to want babies and emotional connection but not necessarily sex itself. Bergner, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, blames evolutionary psychologists for spreading a contemporary version of this old idea. He assembles a group of scientists from different fields who talk about how earlier sexist bias has obscured the existence, strength and significance of female sex drive in animal reproduction.

[spoiler title=”Click the button for more” open=”0″ style=”1″]Here is one example, with monkeys: In the 1970s, a psychologist and neuro­endocrinologist named Kim Wallen noticed that the sexual behavior of rhesus monkeys was affected by the size of their cages. In close quarters the monkeys went at it like mad, and the male seemed to initiate sexual activity, which in turn seemed to confirm the prevailing idea that female monkeys were entirely sexually passive. But in larger cages, as in the wild, the females were the ones who chose their partners and initiated sex by following the males around and touching them demonstratively. The small cages, with their forced proximity, reduced monkey sex life to intercourse, obviating all the mating rituals in which female lust was the essential factor that set sex in motion. After Wallen’s observations, primatologists started seeing evidence that many kinds of female primates initiated sex, while their male counterparts pretty much sat around waiting for the ladies to take an interest in their erections.

Are we that kind of primate? Human arousal and sexual behavior are difficult to study in a lab. Scientists don’t so much have answers as some intriguing findings, ongoing projects and their own theories to share. The theory most often mentioned across disciplines is that women, like men, are inclined to promiscuity. This notion is so far supported by animal studies and long-range surveys of women, which have found that low levels of sex drive are correlated with the number of years they’ve been in a monogamous relationship; women’s sexual interest in steady partners may plummet even more quickly than men’s. This view is corroborated in the book by couples therapists who specialize in trying to help women regain sexual interest in their partners through thought experiments and mandatory date nights. They are notably pessimistic about how much heat all this homework can be expected to generate. The crucial point, Bergner writes, is that flagging sex drive is not just an inevitability for women — it is specifically the result of long-term monogamy. Even the hormonal decrease of menopause can be entirely overridden by the appearance of a new sexual partner. According to Berg­ner, Kim Wallen, the psychologist who discovered the role of cages in monkey sex, “thought that monogamy was, for women, a cultural cage — one of many cultural cages — distorting libido.”

No one here is claiming that women’s experience of desire, arousal and orgasm is exactly like men’s. Bergner refers to the possibility of “a new, unvarnished norm” for female sex drive, but the scientists he interviews aren’t simply arguing that women have a stronger sex drive than commonly thought; some of them are rethinking the significance of female sexuality in reproduction. Female orgasm lost its essential status when scientists in the 1600s began to figure out how the ovum worked. Since then scientific scrutiny has focused overwhelmingly on women’s reproductive rather than sexual function; at times the existence of female desire and arousal and orgasm has been outright denied. A stubborn sense of uncertainty surrounds female sexual anatomy. The G spot was identified (avant la lettre) by a Dutch physician in the 1600s. It was described again (as “an erotic zone . . . on the anterior wall of the vagina along the course of the urethra”) by the German gynecologist Ernst Gräfenberg in 1950. It was reported yet again in the 1982 best seller “The G Spot: And Other Discoveries About Human Sexuality,” by Alice Kahn Ladas, Beverly Whipple and John D. Perry. That book was met with surprise and scientific skepticism; the latter still lingers. Female ejaculation has a similar history of discovery, denial, incredulous rediscovery, lingering unknowns.

Now, researchers who work with animals argue that female anatomy in fact might be specifically adapted to sex with multiple partners — not just over a lifetime, but in the course of a single sexual episode. The different pace at which men and women build to climax might have the purpose of facilitating sex with multiple men in short succession, which would increase the odds of getting pregnant. Paraphrasing a theory put forward by the primatologist and anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, Bergner writes that the characteristics of female orgasm “could well be thoroughly relevant among our ancestors. Its delay, its need of protracted sensation . . . was evolution’s method of making sure that females are libertines, that they move efficiently from one round of sex to the next and frequently from one partner to the next, that they transfer the turn-on of one encounter to the stimulation of the next, building toward climax.”

If this is true, then female orgasm has played a crucial role in successful human reproduction — even though it is not necessary to conception itself.

So where does that leave us? Should we join swingers’ clubs? Have threesomes? Cheat with the piano tuner?

Only at our own risk. Bergner acknowledges that people agree to monogamy not because it’s the sexiest possible arrangement but because it seems the best way to have things like emotional stability and trust and therefore long-term companionship, which appears to be something both human males and females want — even if they also want to sleep around. One could imagine a more drawn-out examination of whether monogamy is indeed the best foundation for long-term relationships, given that both men and women (studies now show) sometimes find the strictures stifling to sexual happiness. In reading this book, I was reminded of the columnist Dan Savage’s long-running contention that heterosexual couples would have more stable relationships if they had a less rigid devotion to the ideal of monogamy. But Bergner doesn’t linger on the puzzles of long-term couplehood. The human tendency to become intensely attached to particular sex partners doesn’t figure in here. Instead, the book’s disparate parts are held together by Bergner’s general insistence on the very existence and force of female lust.

Our author sometimes seems to get lost in the sexiness of it all. In laboratories, vaginal blood vessels “throb” with arousal. Women are shown pornography that “stoked them — stoked them instantly — toward lust.” A “raw portrait of female lust . . . was emerging” from the work of one researcher, who found that for heterosexual women, the sight of “an isolated, rigid phallus filled vaginal blood vessels and sent the red line of the plethysmograph high, niceties vanished, conventions cracked; female desire was, at base, nothing if not animal.”

Bergner proceeds as if the value of being called “animal,” of being considered highly libidinous, were self-evident — as if such charges had never been used against women. The fact that scientific and medical study of women’s reproductive systems has over the last three centuries been a fun house of ethically questionable experiments and misogynistic pronouncements doesn’t weigh as heavily on this book as you might expect. It is with apparently innocent enthusiasm that Bergner describes scenes of women masturbating while hooked up to M.R.I. scanners and having their vaginal blood flow measured by machines.

There is something drastically undertheorized about what all these tentative findings and speculations are doing in the same volume and what they might mean taken together. Why is female lust getting such a big dose of scientific legitimacy at this moment? Are these theories influenced by women’s and men’s evolving social roles? By women’s increasing economic and political power? By feminism itself? Many of the scientists are, after all, women, a novel situation. The history of the study of women’s sexuality tells us that when many scientists are finding the same sorts of things at the same time, it is because they have gone looking for them; a cultural shift has already taken place. For some reason — maybe for many reasons — the story of the libidinous male and sexually indifferent female doesn’t make sense to us anymore.

We shouldn’t mourn its passing. As long as we continue to think (in the back of our minds, to some degree) that men are hard-wired for sex and women for intimacy and babies, then we are stuck with the logic that only men really want to have sex; women want to trade it for something else. This makes straight couples into hagglers: self-interested, ungenerous, wary of being played. Better for men and women to approach each other as more or less equal partners in lust, and work out the rest in the morning.[/spoiler]

Of course, there is less here than meets the eye – if humans repress their sexuality for overriding social reasons, then the fact that women are as interested in sex per se as men is not soon going to be any more relevant than hitherto to what really happens than men’s notorious preoccupation with sexual opportunity, since the latter impulse will always be more easily unleashed until women enjoy the same social sanctions as men for uninhibited behavior. Given the huge fundamental differences in experience in the pregnancy, childbirth and even rearing which Nature imposes on women this surely awaits the time when contraception is perfected, which has not yet happened.

Who is Elaine Blair? 2007: Russian born Brown graduate leaving the New York Book review for LA

Another Blair book review appreciation.

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Advice to Ponder from Anton Chekhov

The man of talent is fastidious, abjures advertisement

Elevates the base appetites, works hard

Kindness is not enough

A letter written by Anton Chekhov at 26 to his older brother Nikolai, 28, advises him on the traits of the man of culture and talent. was unearthed by Brain Pickings, an on line source of gold amid the glitter.

The Chekhov brothers Anton. P. Chekhov (aged 22, left) with Nikolai Chekhov (aged 24, right) 1882

MOSCOW, 1886.

… You have often complained to me that people “don’t understand you”! Goethe and Newton did not complain of that…. Only Christ complained of it, but He was speaking of His doctrine and not of Himself…. People understand you perfectly well. And if you do not understand yourself, it is not their fault.

I assure you as a brother and as a friend I understand you and feel for you with all my heart. I know your good qualities as I know my five fingers; I value and deeply respect them. If you like, to prove that I understand you, I can enumerate those qualities. I think you are kind to the point of softness, magnanimous, unselfish, ready to share your last farthing; you have no envy nor hatred; you are simple-hearted, you pity men and beasts; you are trustful, without spite or guile, and do not remember evil…. You have a gift from above such as other people have not: you have talent. This talent places you above millions of men, for on earth only one out of two millions is an artist. Your talent sets you apart: if you were a toad or a tarantula, even then, people would respect you, for to talent all things are forgiven.

You have only one failing, and the falseness of your position, and your unhappiness and your catarrh of the bowels are all due to it. That is your utter lack of culture. Forgive me, please, but veritas magis amicitiae…. You see, life has its conditions. In order to feel comfortable among educated people, to be at home and happy with them, one must be cultured to a certain extent. Talent has brought you into such a circle, you belong to it, but … you are drawn away from it, and you vacillate between cultured people and the lodgers vis-a-vis.

Cultured people must, in my opinion, satisfy the following conditions:

They respect human personality, and therefore they are always kind, gentle, polite, and ready to give in to others. They do not make a row because of a hammer or a lost piece of india-rubber; if they live with anyone they do not regard it as a favour and, going away, they do not say “nobody can live with you.” They forgive noise and cold and dried-up meat and witticisms and the presence of strangers in their homes.
They have sympathy not for beggars and cats alone. Their heart aches for what the eye does not see…. They sit up at night in order to help P…., to pay for brothers at the University, and to buy clothes for their mother.
They respect the property of others, and therefor pay their debts.
They are sincere, and dread lying like fire. They don’t lie even in small things. A lie is insulting to the listener and puts him in a lower position in the eyes of the speaker. They do not pose, they behave in the street as they do at home, they do not show off before their humbler comrades. They are not given to babbling and forcing their uninvited confidences on others. Out of respect for other people’s ears they more often keep silent than talk.
They do not disparage themselves to rouse compassion. They do not play on the strings of other people’s hearts so that they may sigh and make much of them. They do not say “I am misunderstood,” or “I have become second-rate,” because all this is striving after cheap effect, is vulgar, stale, false….
They have no shallow vanity. They do not care for such false diamonds as knowing celebrities, shaking hands with the drunken P., [Translator’s Note: Probably Palmin, a minor poet.] listening to the raptures of a stray spectator in a picture show, being renowned in the taverns…. If they do a pennyworth they do not strut about as though they had done a hundred roubles’ worth, and do not brag of having the entry where others are not admitted…. The truly talented always keep in obscurity among the crowd, as far as possible from advertisement…. Even Krylov has said that an empty barrel echoes more loudly than a full one.
If they have a talent they respect it. They sacrifice to it rest, women, wine, vanity…. They are proud of their talent…. Besides, they are fastidious.
They develop the aesthetic feeling in themselves. They cannot go to sleep in their clothes, see cracks full of bugs on the walls, breathe bad air, walk on a floor that has been spat upon, cook their meals over an oil stove. They seek as far as possible to restrain and ennoble the sexual instinct…. What they want in a woman is not a bed-fellow … They do not ask for the cleverness which shows itself in continual lying. They want especially, if they are artists, freshness, elegance, humanity, the capacity for motherhood…. They do not swill vodka at all hours of the day and night, do not sniff at cupboards, for they are not pigs and know they are not. They drink only when they are free, on occasion…. For they want mens sana in corpore sano [a healthy mind in a healthy body].
And so on. This is what cultured people are like. In order to be cultured and not to stand below the level of your surroundings it is not enough to have read “The Pickwick Papers” and learnt a monologue from “Faust.” …

What is needed is constant work, day and night, constant reading, study, will…. Every hour is precious for it…. Come to us, smash the vodka bottle, lie down and read…. Turgenev, if you like, whom you have not read.

You must drop your vanity, you are not a child … you will soon be thirty.
It is time!
I expect you…. We all expect you.

“The truly talented always keep in obscurity among the crowd, as far as possible from advertisement…”

Hmmm.. just how ewe feel. But a ticket to obscurity unless one has an agent!

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Praise For Steak Writ Large: A.A. Gill in Esquire

Steak red and raw, that’s the writing of A.A.Gill. Who’s he?

Wow! If good writing is taking what you want to write, and embroidering it in Baroque fashion, but not gilding the lily, so to speak, but somehow combining both florid flourishes and precise description and expression, without going over the edge into inexactitude and fantasy or even downright lying, then A. A. Gill is the man for you.

Never thought we would say it, but this kind of writing knocks the New Yorker into a cocked hat, or whatever the phrase is. Enough of the placid, limpid delineation of reality (supposed reality, actually often involving composite characters and combining conversations held at different times into one, we have been disappointed to learn), this is writing as big as a bleeding brown hunk of Angus beef slapped down on your plate with plenty of mashed potato and spinach on the side, food for the man in us, not the dinky tea party we have been praising up till now.

All Hail A. A. Gill, scribe to the Gods!


May 2013 Vanity Fair
Steak Shows Its Muscle

[spoiler title=”Click the tab for the whole marvelous piece” open=”0″ style=”1″]Consumed with increasing voracity around the globe, steak is the defining mouthful of our time. That slab of bleeding cow—a relatively recent and very American addition to the world’s cuisine—satisfies many cravings, but its sizzle means danger too.
By A. A. Gill

I once dined with the Masai in the Serengeti. Seven thirty for eight, smart safari casual. I tiptoed up to the thorn enclosure, shook hands, smiled, talked about the weather and the flies and the children’s beadwork, admired the big lotus-bladed lion spears, and then my host said, “Shall we go through?” We went into the dining room, which was also the cattle pen, where dinner was standing with a tourniquet around its neck and a lad pulling its tail. A boy took a bow with a blunt arrow and shot a hole in the animal’s jugular vein, which spurted a river of blood dexterously into a long, bulbous gourd that had been cleaned for my benefit with cow’s urine.

After about half a pint had been tapped, the tourniquet was released, a finger of dung applied to the hole, and the steer was re-united with his mates to complain about the greed and cold hands of cooks. The dinner soup was briskly whisked with a stick to keep it from clotting, the stick was handed to a child in the way your mother gave you the cake-mix spoon, and the gourd was hospitably given to me. It was heavy. The family watched with a host’s nervous expectation. Cheers, I said weakly, and lifted it to my mouth. The smell of the disinfected pot reeked rank as I felt the blood move and lurch in the gourd’s neck like a slinking dark animal. And then, before I was ready, my mouth was full, cheeks bulging with body-heat gore the texture of custard, silky and vital and forcing open my constricted throat. I swallowed. Great visceral chugs.

Imagine what it tasted like. Just think. Because, actually, you already know. You know what warm blood straight from a bull’s heart tastes of—it tastes of steak. Not merely like steak. Not just a little meaty. But of the very finest, perfectly velvety, unctuous steak I’d ever tasted. But it isn’t the blood that tastes of steak, it’s steak that tastes of blood, and that’s all it tastes of. I never eat a sirloin now without thinking, This is good, but not quite as good as the real oozing liquid thing. My Masai dinner was, incidentally, the only steak a vegetarian could ethically eat; no animals were killed. It was organic, and it was wholly sustainable. The Masai’s cows owe their long and treasured lives to this occasional painless cupping.

We live in the steak age; marbled fatty buttock is the defining mouthful of our time. Smart cities are being stampeded by herds of restaurants devoted to cows’ arses. This is the bovine spring of red meat, and it’s not just America or the West. Around the world, communities that a generation ago rarely or never ate steak are now craving and demanding the taste of blood. In 1950 there were an estimated 720 million cows in the world. Today there are nearly one and a half billion. In America there is one cow for every three people. Think of a third of a cow—that’s what’s on your plate, and you’re not getting up until you’ve finished it.

Why have we fallen in such greedy love with beef? What does steak say to us and about us? Well, it’s manly. If food came with gender appellations, steak would definitely be at the top of the bloke column. Women can eat it, they can appreciate it, but it’s like girls chugging pints of beer and then burping. It’s a cross-gender impersonation. Steak is a high-value food that doesn’t need a chef. You don’t want some twiddly-accented, jus-dribbling, foam-flicking chef mincing about with your meat. You want a guy in a checked shirt with his sleeves rolled up forking and tonging your T-bone. Steaks even come with their own butch utensils. It’s more like engineering or Lego than cooking. It’s boy stuff. The porterhouse used to be the dining choice of a gauche out-of-towner, a man who was uncomfortable with chic urban menus and didn’t know how to order—“Oh, I’ll just have the steak. Wipe its behind and bring it to the table,” they’d say, just to let the rest of us cheese-eating sophisticates know that they weren’t intimidated hicks. Restaurants would keep steak on the menu just for them because they knew there would always be a certain sort of guy who didn’t think it was an acceptable date restaurant if he couldn’t get a New York strip. Chefs hate steaks because their reputations are left in the hands of their butchers—two cuts off the same muscle can eat quite differently.

But today steak is, if not chic, then at least modern. Steak houses used to be leathery, clubbable lounges with cartoons of dead customers on the walls and faux Victorian paintings of obese cattle, staffed by ancient, permanently enraged waiters with faces as livid as well-hung sirloin and aprons that went from nipple to ankle. Now a steak restaurant is more likely to be James Bond luxurious and internationally expensive, a setting for chiseled-jawed, silver-templed seduction and couples with multiple passports. A place for men—who might fear that their testicles would pack their bags and leave if they caught them talking about terroir or heirloom tomatoes—to have a detailed and exhaustively knowledgeable discussion about dry-aging, grass-fed versus corn-fed, and the state of Wagyu-Angus crossbreeding. Steak has become the butch foodie communion, and tellingly not just for flinty-eyed, Armani-suited leaner-than-thou businessmen, but for metrosexuals who wish to beef up their cultural testosterone.

In lean times, when we’re keeping a white-knuckle grip on the rungs of the middle-class ladder, steak comes as a small vote of self-confidence. It’s an emblem of victory, of survival. A slab of bleeding meat is symbolic of something fundamental, something pre-banking, pre-mortgage, predownsizing, prehistoric. It is a metaphor for the most basic achievement: to kill for sustenance, to be strong, to man up. Watch a guy in a suit look at his plate when the waitress brings his steak. He glares at it just for a moment. It’s not even conscious, but it’s the look of ownership; it’s the pride warning, “Don’t touch my meat.” A lot of men do something called mantling—that is to lean over the plate, surround it with their arms just for a second. It’s body language that comes from a time before speech. The bit of our brain that deals with taste and appetite is the most ancient in our heads, the bit we share with lizards. Nothing about our menu choices are purely cultural, civilized, or rational. A steak feels, looks, and tastes like winning—a direct connection to our bipedal ancestors. The original reward of victors.

Actually, steak is quite modern and very American. The great boom in beef eating came during the Civil War as a way to feed large groups of peripatetic men living in tents. Steak became a fad when the first refrigerated train cars pulled out of the Chicago stockyards and headed East. Steak houses appeared and gave fancy names to the slabs of flesh. Before the Second World War ordinary Joes rarely ate steak. It was the occasional meat of millionaires and cartoon characters. Steaks were dreamed of and fought over; they were the muscle of a better tomorrow. Today the prices being charged for prime cuts in prestige dining rooms—where the raw material is paraded to the table like a Premier Cru—can equal a day’s pay for the waiter. The expense adds to the special pleasure, the achievement, and is the secret ingredient of the filet mignon.

Around the globe, particularly in the East, in cultures that are more attuned to the semaphore and simile of ingredients, more steaks are being ordered. They are the taste of the free market, the blessing of Western capitalism, a celebration of consumerism and modernity and the arrival of the middle class. Thirty percent of the world’s land surface that isn’t frozen is given over to livestock production, and most of that is for grazing cattle. We eat the cows, and the cows eat everything else: horizons of corn, the rain forest, the plains and pampas, and the habitats of other species. They poison the water, and their flatulence contributes to global warming.

Like us, the Masai believe that their cattle make them superior to those who grub in the dirt or eat fish or fowl; the blood makes them special. Steak may be the taste of victory, but that sizzle is also the smell of fear.


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Is This The Finest Biography Ever Written?

Secret sauce keeps you reading every line – but what is it?

Constance, wife of Wilde, keeps even keel amid ruin

Beguiled by infamous passions, Wilde lost his first love

Constance-The-Tragic-and-Scandalous-Life-of-Mrs-Oscar Wilde is told with the kind of literary talent that matches its subjects and preserves their dignity forever

Beautifully written, beautifully paced, the new biography of Oscar Wilde’s wife Constance is as easy to read as a ride in a Cadillac 1958 from Toronto to New York. A Cadillac 58 was the last of the high Cadillacs, the next models started the fashion for low slung cars like futons with as many tail lights as a tarantula has eyes. It could cover 500 miles as easily as a giant walks over hills with 500 foot strides.

That’s the kind of idiotic sentence which doesn’t appear in this wonderful biography, which tells the story of a woman who enjoyed a love marriage with a literary celebrity who then turned into a monster of ill repute and forced her to manage the consequences for her children by fleeing to the Continent and changing her name to Holland, though she never totally abandoned Oscar, whom she supported till the end.

A fine woman with a strong spine who survived Oscar intact but never abandoned him completely

This is a social saga of a past age as lived through by a woman of some distinction in her own right, and would normally seem a little distant from our own lives and times to be of great interest, but this telling is interesting from the first page to the last. The sustained interest it has, a beautifully paced interest which depends neither on metaphor nor sensation, carries one through three hundred and twenty five pages with the last as fresh as the first.

How does Franny Moyle do it? We think it is because her account carries with it every step of the way the magic wand of why – every fact is accounted for with a reference to why it happened, mostly just incorporated in the construction of the same sentence. Things don’t just parade before our eyes, one thing after another in time. They are explained.

Unfortunately she had to protect her two sons from the awful social consequences of Oscar’s exposure as a “somdomite”

What an enormous difference such a well reasoned book makes. It doesn’t short change the impulses and passions which lead people astray or make them climb mountains, but it doesn’t ignore them either. Thus every action and every attitude is imbued with the motivations of the human heart, and one can identify with Constance at every turn.

But Franny could explain it much better. Meanwhile, this is not to say that there are n’t gaps in her account, little inconsistencies which need explaining, and some contradictions. But where we are discussing her style, and why it is so fluently readable and satisfying.

Herewith some examples:


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Fierce Pajamas: Sparks of Comic Genius

New Yorker Humor Collection is Exemplary, Mostly Hilarious

Gem after Gem in Diadem of Good Writing

Proof that Wit Rules, Shallow or Not

If humor is the gold of literature – well it is in our book – this is a chunk of a pure seam.

The New Yorker still manages to print some of the finest journalism in the English speaking world, distinguished by a deft, elegant literacy where its subjects are treated without sensation, salesmanship, or condescension, but rather, with unflinching, spotlit realism softened with civilized discretion.

The unjustifiably ad-starved (curse those philistine media budget executives who won’t support it as a priceless cultural treasure chest) magazine’s writers and editors combine the tact of understanding psychiatrists with unremitting respect for the dignity of people as human beings, however quirky in impulse or irrational in self justification they might be, whether they are saints or murderers. Their profiles are rounded sculptures, rather than the two dimensional sketches we find in the rest of the magazine rack.

Along with all this talented sobriety, some of its most accomplished writing is to be found in the humor section, where week after week, the Shouts and Murmurs column is often a brilliant page which nails our culture’s hypocrisy, vanity and other foolishness to the wall with painless accuracy, turning the absurd dross of human posturing into the gold of wit that will never tarnish.

For this reason we were delighted to stumble upon a copy of Fierce Pajamas, the collection of the best New Yorker humor pieces from m year or two ago, as we surveyed our library with a view of weeding out enough books to at least get rid of the stacks on the floor (a vain project, as usual – who can find a book which does not contain invaluable information of one kind or another? Books are now the repository of the best information in this new age of the Internet and Wiki with its supply of incomplete and suspect knowledge).

Given the fast pace of modern life in the biggest of big cities, culturally speaking, in the English speaking world, that is to say New York City with its Niagara of events and publications, where even the Times is to long to skim every day, the number of books one actually reads end to end every year can be counted upon one hand. Yet Fierce Pajamas is one of that privileged category, the book that one scours for pages one hasn’t read or that one wants to read again for lack of any that one skimmed past.

A rich cornucopia of brilliant gems, silver candlesticks and gold coins of humorous essays, this volume should be kept by the bedside for nightly nightcaps of amusement, allaying cares and concerns with its reassuring parade of little satires and other debunking of what we take so seriously – too seriously – throughout the day.

The highest peak of New Yorker satire

Of course, those with long memories will know that the finest compendium of New Yorker pieces is not this excellent collection but the fabled Snooze, which was issued 27 years ago.

The only oddity about this parodic peak when you first come across it is that too many of the choices seem to be by the two editors responsible for this literary celebration of the New Yorker’s genius, Alfred Gingold and John Buskin. These evidently rather egomaniacal likterary enablers have had the effrontery to have reserved space for no fewer than 15 and 1`6 of their own works respectively.

It is only a third of the way through this volume that you realize that the explanation for the favor the editors were showing to their own work had a different explanation. The whole thing – even the cartoons – was in fact not drawn from the pages of the New Yorker at all. It was all a parody – of the New Yorker.

But the work is so expert that any of its selections could be included in a typical New Yorker issue and be essentially undetectable by the unsuspecting naive reader. until he or she is finally alerted by the slight increase in fatuity rendered.

The whole thing is embarrassing – how could we be so undiscerning?! – except for the fact that a parody that is almost indistinguishable from the original in tone and approach is surely the most delicious of all.

Of course the New Yorker has moved on since 1986 when the parody hit the bullseye dead center, but the sheer brilliance of this work shines as brightly now as it did then. Should be among the most treasured items in anyone’s personal library, but most espeically that of any writer.

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Thinking Well of Sex

Alain de Botton Explains Our Emotions About Sex

Exceptional Thinking Is Matched by Exceptional Writing

Proves the Two Are One and the Same

Actually, how to think about real life sex – better than anyone has before

Don’cha love self help books? They always promise the secret of bringing emotional order out of chaos, but somehow the promise is never fulfilled. Instead of seeking and exposing inner truths, all we get are trite homilies, and ways to manipulate ourselves and others. What we need is a philosopher to apply his or her truth seeking to everyday life and tell us the way it is, really. But where is that writer?

It is none other than Alain de Botton, who has guided us so successfully through topics as diverse as Proust’s A La Recherche du Temps Perdus, how to be an atheist and a revised idea of success to How to Travel. Now he has turned his hand to sex, and the result is a triumph of truthseeking. This is odd and unexpected in a way,k since Alain has led a charmed life, himself, born well off and privileged in his education and in his looks, if we are permitted to say so.

We last saw him at his reading in Manhattan at a small bookstore on Lexington in the 70s, as we recall, where we noted that he had a ravishingly beautiful young woman in tow who obviously shared the same fine education as he had himself (or so we imagined). What has this lucky fellow got to teach those of us lesser folk in our wrestling with the eternal challenges and verities of relations between the sexes?

Well, quite a lot, it seems. What we have in hand is a copy of How To Think More About Sex, his contribution to the series he founded, The School of Life. Unlike the other small volumes in this series, it is superbly written – by which we mean, it is written with the unique method which de Botton has patented, which is to apply his fine mind to the truths of daily life and give them words which shine with the light of honest revelation.

How unexpected that de Botton should be able to guide us through our own lives and experience when his own is so privileged. But his success is that of a man who is unafraid to confront his own insecurities and, recognizing that they are universal, explain them perfectly in terms of reality and the emotions we feel – hope, trepidation, yearning, bliss – when we venture into the realm of sex, which involves and engenders emotional intimacy as well as physical, unless we are in the idiot realm of “the hook up”, the latest fashion among young college females in the US and perhaps all over, where for the sake of their “career” sex is undertaken with a determined resistance to any vulnerability of that kind.

If that sounds confused, it is the kind of confusion which de Botton with his mastery of delineating truths by finding precisely the right words for them can be counted on to disentangle in this book, which proves once again that writing well is in fact thinking well, and that the only way to find out what we really think and feel is by writing it down. In the hands of a master, we find out what we really are.

The only reservation we have is that the title is cleverly provocative for sure but still a little misleading. What the book is really about is How to Think Well About Sex. But as a woman commented who saw us reading it in line at a store, it certainly is a very effective way of meeting people!

How to Think More About Sex

by Alain de Botton

[spoiler title=”Click the tab for the long excerpt” open=”0″ style=”1″]Introduction

It is rare to get through this life without feeling generally with a degree of secret agony, perhaps at the end of a relationship, or as we lie in bed frustrated next to our partner, unable to go to sleep that we are somehow a bit odd about sex. It is an area in which most of us have a painful impression, in our heart of hearts, that we are quite unusual. Despite being one of the most private of activities, sex is nonetheless surrounded by a range of powerful socially sanctioned ideas that codify how normal people are meant to feel about and deal with the matter.

In truth, however, few of us are remotely normal sexually. We are almost all haunted by guilt and neuroses, by phobias and disruptive desires, by indifference and disgust. None of us approaches sex as we are meant to, with the cheerful, sporting, non-obsessive, constant, well-adjusted outlook that we torture ourselves by believing that other people are endowed with. We are universally deviant – but only in relation to some highly distorted ideals of normality.

Given how common it is to be strange, it is regrettable how seldom the realities of sexual life make it into the public realm. Most of what we are sexually remains impossible to communicate with anyone whom we would want to think well of us. Men and women in love will instinctively hold back from sharing more than a fraction of their desires out of a fear, usually accurate, of generating intolerable disgust in their partners. We may find it easier to die without having had certain conversations.

The priority of a philosophical book about sex seems evident: not to teach us how to have more intense or more frequent sex, but rather to suggest how, through a shared language, we might begin to feel a little less painfully strange about the sex we are either longing to have or struggling to avoid.

Whatever discomfort we do feel around sex is commonly aggravated by the idea that we belong to a liberated age – and ought by now, as a result, to be finding sex a straightforward and untroubling matter.

The standard narrative of our release from our shackles goes something like this: for thousands of years across the globe, due to a devilish combination of religious bigotry and pedantic social custom, people were afflicted by a gratuitous sense of confusion and guilt around sex. They thought their hands would fall off if they masturbated. They believed they might be burned in a vat of oil because they had ogled someone’s ankle. They had no clue about erections or clitorises. They were ridiculous.

Then, sometime between the First World War and the launch of Sputnik 1, things changed for the better. Finally, people started wearing bikinis, admitted to masturbating, grew able to mention cunnilingus in social contexts, started to watch porn films and became deeply comfortable with a topic that had, almost unaccountably, been the source of needless neurotic frustration for most of human history. Being able to enter into sexual relations with confidence and joy became as common an expectation for the modern era as feeling trepidation and guilt had been for previous ages. Sex came to be perceived as a useful, refreshing and physically reviving pastime, a little like tennis – something that everyone should have as often as possible in order to relieve the stresses of modern life.

This narrative of enlightenment and progress, however flattering it may be to our powers of reason and our pagan sensibilities, conveniently skirts an unbudging fact: sex is not something that we can ever expect to feel easily liberated from. It was not by mere coincidence that sex so disturbed us for thousands of years: repressive religious dictates and social taboos grew out of aspects of our nature that cannot now just be wished away. We were bothered by sex because it is a fundamentally disruptive, overwhelming and demented force, strongly at odds with the majority of our ambitions and all but incapable of being discreetly integrated within civilized society.

Despite our best efforts to clean it of its peculiarities, sex will never be either simple or nice in the ways we might like it to be. It is not fundamentally democratic or kind; it is bound up with cruelty, transgression and the desire for subjugation and humiliation. It refuses to sit neatly on top of love, as it should. Tame it though we may try, sex has a recurring tendency to wreak havoc across our lives: it leads us to destroy our relationships, threatens our productivity and compels us to stay up too late in nightclubs talking to people whom we don’t like but whose exposed midriffs we nevertheless strongly wish to touch. Sex remains in absurd, and perhaps irreconcilable, conflict with some of our highest commitments and values. Unsurprisingly, we have no option but to repress its demands most of the time. We should accept that sex is inherently rather weird instead of blaming ourselves for not responding in more normal ways to its confusing impulses.

This is not to say that we cannot take steps to grow wiser about sex. We should simply realize that we will never entirely surmount the difficulties it throws our way. Our best hope should be for a respectful accommodation with an anarchic and reckless power.

Meet the Author

Alain de Botton is the bestselling author of How Proust Can Change Your Life, as well as numerous other works of fiction and essays. He is well-known for making complex philosophical and artistic subjects accessible for a wider audience. De Botton founded the School of Life, a series of lectures in London that aim to make academic learning applicable to real life. With the success of the school, this concept was adapted into The School of Life book series. De Botton lives and works in London.

See New York Times interview by someone whose name is not attached in the Times Book Review:

The New York Times

January 24, 2013
Alain de Botton: By the Book

The author of “How to Think More About Sex” was impressed as a young man by Kierkegaard’s claim to read only “writings by men who have been executed.”

What book is on your night stand now?

I’m reading “Zona,” the latest book by one of my favorite contemporary writers, Geoff Dyer. The premise of the book sounds immensely boring — an essay on Andrei Tarkovsky’s fim “Stalker” — but fortunately, like most of Dyer’s works, it isn’t about anything other than the author: his obsessions, his fears, his encroaching (and always endearing) feelings of insanity. The book is held together by the sheer quality of the author’s voice, a feat in itself.

What was the last truly great book you read?

I remain predictably in thrall to Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time.” There is so much in the novel, it’s possible for two committed Proustians to love it for entirely different reasons. Some like the dinner parties, some the art history, some the jealousy, some the young girls in bloom. The Proust I respond to is the psychological essayist who observes the motives and emotions of his characters with some of the forensic acuity (and dry deadly wit) of the great French moralists like Pascal, La Rochefoucauld and Stendhal; the Proust who writes things like: “There is no doubt that a person’s charms are less frequently a cause of love than a remark such as: ‘No, this evening I shan’t be free.’”

What is your favorite literary genre? Any guilty pleasures?

I’m devoted to the essay. This is a much less defined genre than, say, the history book or the novel. The kind of essays I have in mind come down in a line from Montaigne, and tackle large quasi — philosophical themes in a tone that is warm, human, digressive and touching. You feel like you have come to know a friend, not just a theme. I have loved essays by, among others, Emerson, Thoreau, Virginia Woolf, Donald Winnicott, Cyril Connolly, Joseph Brodsky, Lawrence Weschler, Milan Kundera, Julian Barnes, Adam Gopnik and Nicholson Baker.

Have you read any good books on philosophy lately?

I have been consoled by Arthur Schopenhauer’s delightfully morbid pessimism in “The Wisdom of Life.” “We can regard our life as a uselessly disturbing episode in the blissful repose of nothingness,” he tells us. “It may be said of it: ‘It is bad today and every day it will get worse, until the worst of all happens.’ ” It’s a mistaken prejudice of our times to think that the only way to cheer someone up is to tell them something cheerful. Exaggerated tragic pronouncements work far better.

If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be? The prime minister?

Your president is a complex case, a man of passion, courage and oratory. And also, a diligent, prickly, practical law professor. I’ve got a weakness for the former side, so would want to put books in front of him that could bolster what I think of as his best impulses. I’d particularly keep him close to Whitman and Thoreau, those great American voices of openhearted humanity, daring and liberty. As for the British prime minister, he urgently needs to read John Locke and Thomas Hobbes, and read up on constitutional matters from a historical perspective.

What were your favorite books as a child? Did you have a favorite character or hero?

I was a very un-literary child, which might reassure parents with kids who don’t read. Lego was my thing, as well as practical books like “See Inside a Nuclear Power Station.” It wasn’t till early adolescence that I saw the point of books and then it was the old stalwart, “The Catcher in the Rye,” that got me going. By 16, I was lost — often in the philosophy aisles, in a moody and melodramatic state. I was impressed by Kierkegaard’s claim that he was going to read only “writings by men who have been executed.”

What books had the greatest influence on you when you were a student?

The French essayist Roland Barthes was, and in many ways continues to be, my greatest influence. I responded to his way of approaching very large topics (love, the meaning of literature, photography) in oblique ways, with great formal innovation and originality. His essay on photography, “Camera Lucida,” is a model of what a highly rigorous but personal essay should be like. I couldn’t have written my first book, “On Love,” without reading his “A Lover’s Discourse.” Barthes taught me courage and innovation at the level of form.

What was the last book that made you cry?

I’m always close to tears reading Judith Kerr’s delightful children’s story, “The Tiger Who Came to Tea.” It tells of a tiger who turns up, quite unexpectedly, at teatime at the house of a girl called Sophie and her mother. You’d expect them to panic, but they take the appearance of this visitor entirely in their stride — and their reaction is a subtle invitation for us to approach life’s unexpected challenges with resilience and good humor.

The last book that made you laugh?

I’ve been reading a nonfiction cartoon called “Couch Fiction,” by a British psychoanalyst, Phillippa Perry. The book is simply the best single volume on analysis I’ve ever read, and takes us through one man’s analysis, and his attempts to resolve a range of problem with his mother and his girlfriend. It’s done with images and speech bubbles by Junko Graat; it’s constantly charming and always deeply accurate and thought-provoking.

The last book that made you furious?

I got very angry about the food industry reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s excellent “Eating Animals.” Now, a few years later, I’m bewildered and deeply worried by the way one can be impressed and moved by a book and yet do absolutely nothing about one’s indignation and simply put all the good arguments to one’s side — frightening evidence of the impotence of books in the hands of fickle readers.

What’s the best love story you’ve ever read?

Goethe’s “Sorrows of Young Werther” is like a distillation of all the themes of the Western approach to love. It’s also a study in immaturity. Werther’s love for Charlotte depends on not being reciprocated. Had she said yes, his love might have foundered in the routines of child care. In other words, it’s a love story that subtly points out how much the standard love story doesn’t prepare us for what mature relationships are like. It’s a book that should be given to the young, with warning.

Are there any architects that you think are also particularly good writers? What are your favorite books on architecture?

Le Corbusier is an outstanding writer. His ideas achieved their impact in large measure because he could write so convincingly. His style is utterly clear, brusque, funny and polemical in the best way. His books are beautifully laid out with captions and images. I recommend “Towards a New Architecture.” It’s a deep pity that while Le Corbusier’s style has been much copied by architects, very few have drawn the right lessons from him about literature and prose style.

If you could meet any writer, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you want to know?

I would have liked to meet John Ruskin, who has been a big influence on me, and whose eccentric visions of the ideal society (at the level of architecture and morality) I am constantly inspired by. He felt sad, persecuted, lonely and misunderstood. I would have wanted to try to be his friend.

And if you could meet a character from literature, who would it be?

Proust’s Albertine sounds high maintenance but rewarding — and, in my eyes, a proper woman, a tomboy, rather than a hermaphrodite.

Who are your favorite writers of all time? And among your contemporaries?

My life has been variously overtaken (and ruined by) Montaigne, Stendhal, Freud and W. H. Auden. I think a lot about W. G. Sebald and Ryszard Kapuscinski. A contemporary of sorts, albeit in a different generation, was Norman Mailer. His largely forgotten book, “Of a Fire on the Moon,” fascinates me: a big sprawling essay on technology and America that deserves a wider audience. Among the living, I deeply love: Milan Kundera, Michel Houellebecq, Philip Roth and Nicholson Baker.

And if you had to give a young person a list of books to be read above all others to prepare for adulthood, what would you include?

I’d give them Theodore Zeldin’s “Intimate History of Humanity,” a beautiful attempt to connect up the large themes of history with the needs of the individual soul. I’d point them to Ernst Gombrich’s “Art and Illusion,” which opens up the visual arts and psychology. There’s a lot of despair in adolescence, so I’d recommend comfort from pessimists like Pascal and Cioran. I’d especially give them a sad, poignant, questing little book called “The Unquiet Grave” by Cyril Connolly (written under the alias Palinurus).

What are you planning to read next?

I’d love to read Chris Ware’s new book, “Building Stories,” which was unfortunately out of stock (an extraordinary oversight) and has just become available again. In the meantime, I feel I’m going to have a great time with Douglas Coupland’s new little book about Marshall McLuhan.


Alain de Botton sorts out our fantasies and confusions from ground level, amid the spires and towers that we build to appease them in vain.

Here’s another slice of the Botton cake:

“The psychological aspect of an impression of ‘sexiness’ is also evident in the context of clothing, especially women’s high fashion. Turning once again to the evolutionary–biological point of view, we might draw an easy comparison between couture’s presentation of its product and the mating displays of tropical birds. Just as the quality of the plumage of these birds can indicate the presence or absence of particular blood parasites and thereby swiftly communicate a message about health to a prospective mate, so can fashion seem, at least from a distance, to be narrowly focused on accentuating signs of biological fitness, especially as these are manifest in legs, hips, breasts and shoulders. However, fashion would be a rather one-dimensional business if it spoke to us only of health. There wouldn’t be such intriguing differences between the wares turned out by companies and designers such as Dolce & Gabbana and Donna Karan, or Céline and Marni, or Max Mara and Miu Miu. The foregrounding of health may be one part of the mission of fashion, but on a more ambitious level, this art form also provides women with clothes that support a range of views about what it means to be an interesting and desirable human being. In all their infinite permutations, clothes make statements about values, ethics and psychological dispositions, and we judge them to be either ‘beautiful’ or ‘ugly’ depending on whether we approve or disapprove of the messages they carry. To pronounce a certain outfit ‘sexy’ is not just to remark on the possibility that its wearer might beable to produce thriving children; it is also to acknowledge that we are turned on by the philosophy of existence it represents.

In a given season, we may look at any designer’s collection and consider how we are being invited by it to think of virtue. Dior, for example, may be urging us to remember the importance of such elements as craftsmanship, pre-industrial society and feminine modesty; Donna Karan may be stressing the need for independence, professional competence and the excitements of urban life; and Marni may be making a case for quirkiness, calculated immaturityand left-wing politics. Getting turned on is a process that engages the whole self.Our arousal is an endorsement of a range of surprisingly articulate suggestions as to how we might live.”

Here’s another one, on the temptations of adultery:

[spoiler title=”Click tab to see this excerpt” open=”0″ style=”1″]

We are unlikely to be able to get a grip on this notorious subject if we don’t first allow ourselves to acknowledge just how tempting and exhilarating adultery can be, especially after a few years of marriage and a couple of children. Before we can begin to call it “wrong,” we have to concede that it is also very often—for a time, at least—profoundly thrilling.

Let’s go even further and venture that (contrary to all public verdicts on adultery), the real fault might consist in the obverse—that is, in the lack of any wish whatsoever to stray. This might be considered not only weird but wrong in the deepest sense of the word, because it is irrational and against nature. A blanket refusal to entertain adulterous possibilities would seem to represent a colossal failure of the imagination, a spoilt imperturbability in the face of the tragically brief span we have been allotted on this earth, a heedless disregard for the glorious fleshly reality of our bodies. … Wouldn’t the rejection of these temptations be itself tantamount to a sort of betrayal? Would it really be possible to trust anyone who never showed any interest at all in being unfaithful?

Too many people start off in relationships by putting the moral emphasis in the wrong place, smugly mocking the urge to stray as if it were something disgusting and unthinkable. But in truth, it is the ability to stay that is both wondrous and worthy of honor, though it is too often simply taken for granted and deemed the normal state of affairs. That a couple should be willing to watch their lives go by from within the cage of marriage, without acting on outside sexual impulses, is a miracle of civilization and kindness for which they ought both to feel grateful on a daily basis.

There is nothing normal or particularly pleasant about sexual renunciation. Fidelity deserves to be considered an achievement and constantly praised—ideally with some medals and the sounding of a public gong—rather than discounted as an unremarkable norm whose undermining by an affair should provoke spousal rage. A loyal marriage ought at all times to retain within it an awareness of the immense forbearance and generosity that the two parties are mutually showing in managing not to sleep around (and, for that matter, in refraining from killing each other). If one partner should happen to slip, the other might forgo fury in favor of a certain bemused amazement at the stretches of fidelity and calm that the two of them have otherwise succeeded in maintaining against such great odds.

Ultimately, sex gives us problems within marriage because it gives us problems everywhere. Unfortunately, our own private dilemmas around sex in marriage or otherwise are commonly aggravated by the idea that we belong to a liberated age—and ought by now, as a result, to be finding sex a straightforward and untroubling matter.

But despite our best efforts to clean it of its peculiarities, sex will never be simple in the ways we might like it to be. It can die out halfway through a marriage; it refuses to sit neatly on top of love, as it should. Tame it though we may try, sex has a recurring tendency to wreak havoc across our conjugal lives. Sex remains in absurd, and perhaps irreconcilable, conflict with some of our highest commitments and values. Perhaps ultimately we should accept that sex is inherently rather odd instead of blaming ourselves for not responding in more normal ways to its confusing impulses. This is not to say that we cannot take steps to grow wiser about sex. We should simply realize that we will never entirely surmount the difficulties it throws our way.


The pleasing aspect of de Botton’s career is that he has brought a good mind to bear on issues that concern us all in our lives, yet dealt with them on the basis of how we live and how we might want to live, rather than remain on the academic level far above the supposedly mundane concerns of daily life. Like a good novelist he gives substance and definition to what we are often unconscious of in our social lives, and treats seriously the details of familiar issues as they are lived, rather than set them aside for dealing with later in a church or other abstracted setting. Yet he doesn’t turn to fiction and fantasy to explore everyday reality, but makes explicit the lineaments of desire, ambition, greed and every other force which moves us in our lives.

It is something of a marvel that the highest ivory towers of England have produced such a down to earth philosopher from an academic milieu and a society which is rife with more intellectual and class snobbery than almost any other.

PS: Don’t believe us? Then here are a few confirming opinions from the pinnacles of hackdom:

“Many books of pop psychology or pop philosophy try to contend straightforwardly with what ails our age; Alain de Botton’s wonderful How to Think More About Sex comes to mind, an example of an intelligent person helpfully untying some knots that bind us.”—Sheila Heti, The New York Times Book Review

Dwight Garner’s fine review in the Times is more than a match for Botton’s high level pontificating, both noting its preciousness and admiring its perception. “How to Think More About Sex is a meditation on how comprehensively disruptive our urges can be…an honest book that’s on the prowl for honest insight….Self-Help Books for the Rest of Us.”—The New York Times

“It’s like Cosmo meets Plato—finally!”—Salon

“Even if our sexual partners don’t excite us, this writer’s piquant prose will.”—More

“De Botton is never prescriptive, and the intellectual rigor of his investigation prevents this book from settling into a self-help reference guide.”—Publishers Weekly

“By encouraging readers to understand their desires and manifestations of sexuality in new and more reflective ways, de Botton’s addition to the School of Life series offers a tantalizing discourse on this endlessly fascinating, and eternally misunderstood, subject.”—Booklist

“[de Botton] offers a collection of essays that, taken as a whole, serve to pull sexuality into a philosophical consideration of our drives and desires, to illuminate how we can make sense of the urges that drive us senseless….A well-rounded examination of the ways we can marry intelligent thought and physical pleasure.”—Kirkus Reviews

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His antihero Mrs Bridge immortalizes Evan Connell

Author of two classic literary jewels leaves us

But Mrs Bridge and Mr Bridge will live forever

Sad news today (Fri Jan 11 2013) that Evan Connell, author of two of the greatest small classics of American literature, has died.

Here is the obituary in today’s Times:

Evan Connell, Novelist of Many Genres, Is Dead at 88
Evan S. Connell, a versatile writer praised for his spare portrayal of the frost and repression within a fictional upper-class Midwestern family as well as for his account of the very real and bloody battle that was Custer’s Last Stand, was found dead early Thursday in an assisted-living facility in Santa Fe, N.M. He was 88.

Mike Waller, a nephew by marriage, confirmed the death.

Mr. Connell, the only son of a physician, grew up in Kansas City, Mo., and moved West as a young man. His interests also traveled.

His acclaimed and best-selling first novel, “Mrs. Bridge,” published in 1959, captured the emotional remoteness of a Kansas City family that was much like the one in which Mr. Connell had been raised.

The novel tells of a young woman named India — “it seemed to her her parents must have been thinking of someone else when they named her” — who marries a young lawyer named Walter Bridge, who is “very tall and dignified” and “rather stoop-shouldered so that even when he stood erect his coat hung lower in the front than in the back.”

Not long after their marriage, after they are settled into their routines and he has begun sleeping through the night, she frequently awakes and looks at him and “wonders about the nature of men, doubtful of the future,” until “at last there came a night when she shook her husband awake and spoke of her own desire.”

“Affably he placed one of his long white arms around her waist; she turned to him then, contentedly, expectantly, and secure. However nothing else occurred, and in a few minutes he had gone back to sleep.

“This was the night Mrs. Bridge concluded that while marriage might be an equitable affair, love itself was not.”

A decade later Mr. Connell wrote a sequel, “Mr. Bridge,” and the two united many years later in “Mr. and Mrs. Bridge,” the 1990 Merchant Ivory film starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.

By the time his Kansas City made it to the screen, Mr. Connell had long since become a Westerner. He spent many years in the San Francisco area, where he started writing an essay about Gen. George Armstrong Custer and could not stop. Soon he had a book, or what he thought should be one. It was called “Son of the Morning Star,” and initially no publisher would take it. One, North Point Press, which had published “Mrs. Bridge,” eventually did, releasing it in 1984, and the book became a surprise best seller.

ABC made a television movie based on the book in 1991.

In 2010, in a review of another author’s book on Custer’s Last Stand, Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times recalled “Son of the Morning Star” as having “lasting visceral resonance” and described it as a “masterpiece.”

In 1985, as “Son of the Morning Star” was having a long ride on the best-seller list, Mr. Connell told The Times: “‘ There are two explanations for writing the book. Just about all the kids in this country grew up on cowboys and Indians. Maybe now it’s ‘Star Wars,’ but when I grew up in Kansas City, you could send in box tops — from Quaker Oats, I think — and get something like a color picture of Sitting Bull.

“As far as this project goes,” he continued, “a few years ago I was sitting in a saloon wondering what to write next. I didn’t have any ideas for a novel, and for years whenever I couldn’t manufacture something successful, I simply worked on a subject that interested me. And the Old West came to mind.”

The subjects that interested him ranged widely, frequently consumed him and rarely rewarded him financially. Until the success of “Morning Star” when he was 60, he lived modestly, working at whatever job he could find — reading meters, delivering packages, accepting résumés at an unemployment office — so that he could devote himself to writing. He never married and had no children. He spent nearly every day writing or researching his often dense subjects.

He wrote at least 18 books, including collections of poetry and short stories. In “The Patriot,” a novel published in 1960, he wrote about a naval aviation student’s fears of failure — including fear of failing his father. Forty years later, in his novel “Deus Lo Volt!” he wrote about the brutality of the Christian crusades in the Middle East. Four years after that, in 2004, he published a biography of the Spanish painter Francisco Goya.

Some supporters said the diversity of Mr. Connell’s work attested to his skill. Others said his refusal to hew to a few themes or formats — or perhaps master them — suggested an incomplete talent.

Reviewing Mr. Connell’s last book, the story collection “Lost in Uttar Pradesh,” published in 2008, David L. Ulin wrote in The Los Angeles Times that it offered “an unsettled glimpse of its author, with whom we can’t quite come to terms.”

“Brilliant in places, frustrating in others, enigmatic in both content and conception,” he added, “it’s a vivid metaphor for Connell’s career.”

Evan Shelby Connell was born on Aug. 17, 1924, in Kansas City. He graduated from the University of Kansas in 1947. He is survived by a sister, Barbara Zimmerman, two nieces and a nephew.

Asked about his writing in various genres, he told The Kansas City Star in 2010: “If I find a subject that interests me, then I try to decide how best to write about it. Some things seem better suited for nonfiction, and others seem to be fiction in content or nature. A friend of mine once asked me how I could switch from one to another. I don’t regard it as switching; it’s just whatever subject happens to interest me, and then I decide how I can best tell the story.”

Exquisite, loving satire

As you can tell by taste testing the morsels above, Mrs Bridge is a perfect literary production, encapsulating with humorous but poignant irony the limited existence of a good soldier in the female battalions that marched to the drum of conformity in the upper middle class Protestant suburbs of Kansas City in the nineteen thirties.

With his deadpan description of a hidebound, shallow life with all its petty concerns and buried frustrations Connell depicts a human being caught in a snare of unquestioning subscription to superficial social regulation and it is both a comedy of manners and a muted human tragedy, where the daylight of fulfillment peeps only fitfully through cracks in what is essentially a well furnished but windowless room.

Those rays of enlightenment shine briefly courtesy of Mrs Bridge’s children, whose taming Mrs Bridge patiently insists upon even though they tend to escape her wishes as they grow, and even though she dimly senses that perhaps they deserve to live in a world of freedom and fullfilment she barely understands.

Ultimately this is a perfect study of the human condition, which achieves its effect with deadpan mimicry of the mentality it describes, and with small unexpected twists in the fine fabric of the story as it rolls otherwise smoothly from Connell’s expert loom. As he weaves this placid tale of suburban conformity, it is these provocative and telling turns that we savor. He has a superb capacity to make us as content with Mrs Bridge’s life as she is herself, and yet feel his sympathetic love of her as the prisoner of she knows not what.

As the publishers and reviewers of the two books have rushed to quote, it is Schopenhauer who said that the real business of the novelist is to make the small interesting, rather than write up great events. Connell achieves this in a minor miracle of story telling.

Mrs Bridge’s children, of course, are her major worry, given that they don’t seem to have inherited her placid temperament:

She brought up her children very much as she herself had been brought up, and she hoped that when they were spoken of it would be in connection with their nice manners, their pleasant dispositions, and their cleanliness, for these were qualities she valued above all others.

With Ruth and later with Carolyn, because they were girls, she felt sure of her guidance; but with the boy she was at times obliged to guess and to hope, and as it turned out not only with Douglas but with his two sisters what she stressed was not at all what they remembered as they grew older.

What Ruth was to recall most vividly about childhood was
an incident which Mrs. Bridge had virtually forgotten an
hour after it occurred. One summer afternoon the entire
family, with the exception of Mr, Bridge who was working,
had gone to the neighborhood swimming pool; Douglas lay
on a rubber sheet in the shade of an umbrella, kicking his thin bowed legs and gurgling, and Carolyn was splashing around in the wading pool. The day was exceptionally hot. Ruth took off her bathing suit and began walking across the terrace. This much she could hardly remember, but she was never to forget what happened next. Mrs. Bridge, having suddenly discovered Ruth was naked, snatched up the bathing suit and hurried after her. Ruth began to run, and being wet and slippery she squirmed out of the arms that reached for her from every direction. She thought it was a new game. Then she noticed the expression on her mother’s face. Ruth became bewildered and then alarmed, and when she was finally caught she was screaming hysterically.

All in all a perfect comedy of manners, and a comedy of universal human failings (on the middle class level):

Spanish was a subject she had long meant to study, and quite often she remarked to her friends that she wished she had studied it in school. The children had heard her say this, so for her birthday that year they gave her an album of phonograph records consisting of a lethargic dialogue between Senor Carreno of Madrid and an American visitor named Senora Brown. Along with the records came an attractive booklet of instructions and suggestions. Mrs. Bridge was delighted with the gift and made a joke about how she intended to begin her lessons the first thing “manana.”

As it turned out, however, she was busy the following day, and the day after because of a PTA meeting at the school, and the day after. Somehow or other more than a month passed before she found time to begin, but there came a morning when she resolved to get at it, and so, after helping Harriet with the breakfast dishes, she found her reading glasses and sat down in the living room with the instruction booklet. The course did not sound at all difficult, and the more pages she read the more engrossing it became. The instructions were clear enough: she was simply to listen to each line of dialogue and then, in the pause that followed, to repeat the part of Sefiora Brown.

She put the first record on the phonograph, turning it low enough so that the mailman or any delivery boys would not overhear and think she had gone out of her mind. Seated on the sofa directly opposite the machine she waited, holding onto the booklet in case there should be an emergency.

“Buenas dias, Senora Brown,” the record began, appro-
priately enough. “C6mo esta usted?”

“Buenas dias, Senor Carreno/’ Senora Brown answered.
“Muy bien, gracias. Yusted?”

The record waited for Mrs. Bridge who, however, was afraid it would begin before she had a chance to speak, and in consequence only leaned forward with her lips parted. She got up, walked across to the phonograph, and lifted the needle back to the beginning.

“Buenas dias, Senora Brown. Como esti usted?”

“Buenas dias, Senor Carreno/* replied Senora Brown all
over again. “Muy bien, gracias. Yusted?”

“Buenas dias, Senor Carreno,” said Mrs. Bridge with in-
creasing confidence. “Muy bien, gracias. Yusted?”

“Muy bien,’ said Senor Carreno.

Just then Harriet appeared to say that Mrs. Arlen was on the telephone. Mrs. Bridge put the booklet on the sofa and went into the breakfast room, where the telephone was.

‘Hello, Madge. I’ve been meaning to phone you about the
Auxiliary luncheon next Friday. They’ve changed the time
from twelve-thirty to one. Honestly, I wish they’d make up their minds.”

“Charlotte told me yesterday. You knew Grace Barron was
ill with flu, didn’t you?”

“Oh, not really! She has the worst luck.”

“If it isn’t one thing, it’s another. She’s been down since day before yesterday. I’m running by with some lemonade and thought you might like to come along. I can only stay a split second. I’m due at the hairdresser at eleven.’

“Well, I’m in slacks. Are you going right away?”

“The instant the laundress gets here. That girl! She should have been here hours ago. Honestly, I’m at the end of my rope.”

“Don’t tell me you’re having that same trouble! I sometimes think they do it deliberately just to put people out. We’re trying a new one and she does do nice work, but she’s so independent.”

“Oh,” said Madge Arlen, as if her head were turned away
from the phone, “here she comes. Lord, what next?”

“Well, I’ll dash right upstairs and change,” said Mrs.
Bridge. “I suppose the garden can wait till tomorrow.” And after telling Harriet that she would be at Mrs. Barren’s if anyone called, she started toward the stairs.

“Que tal, Senora Brown?” inquired the record.

Mrs. Bridge hurried into the living room, snapped off the
phonograph, and went upstairs.

There are, of course, myriad other social obstacles and dangers Mrs Bridge must negotiate; in fact, the narrative is an obstacle course of barbed wire and landmines in this respect:

Mr. and Mrs. Bridge were giving a party, not because they
wanted to, but because it was time. Like dinner with the Van Metres, once you accepted an invitation you were obligated to reciprocate, or, as Mr. Bridge had once expressed it, retaliate.

Altogether some eighty people showed up in the course of
the evening. They stood around and wandered around, eating, drinking, talking, and smoking. Grace and Virgil Barron were there Grace sunburned, freckled, and petite, and looking rather pensive; the Arlens arrived in a new Chrysler; the Heywood Duncans were there; and Wilhelm and Susan Van Metre, both seeming withered, sober, and at the wrong party; Lois and Stuart Montgomery; Noel Johnson, huge and alone, wearing a paper cap; Mabel Ong trying to begin serious discussions; and, among others, the Beckerle sisters in beaded gowns which must have been twenty years old, both sisters looking as though they had not for an instant forgotten the morning Mrs. Bridge entertained them In anklets. Even Dr. Foster, smiling tolerantly, with a red nose, stopped by for a cigarette and a whisky sour and chided a number of the men about Sunday golf.

There was also an automobile salesman named Beachy
Marsh who had arrived very early in a double-breasted pinstripe business suit, and, being ill at ease, sensing that he did not belong, did everything he could think of to be amusing.

He was not a close friend but It had been necessary to Invite him along with several others,

Mrs. Bridge rustled about her large, elegant, and brilliantly lighted home, checking steadily to see that everything was as it should be. She glanced into the bathrooms every few minutes and found that the guest towels, like pastel handkerchiefs, were still immaculately overlapping one another at evening’s end only two had been disturbed, a fact which would
have given Douglas, had he known, a morose satisfaction
and she entered the kitchen once to recommend that the extra servant girl, hired to assist Harriet, pin shut the gap in the breast of her starched uniform.

Around and around went Mrs. Bridge, graciously smiling,
pausing here and there to chat for a moment, but forever alert, checking the turkey sandwiches, the crackers, the barbecued sausages, quietly opening windows to let out the smoke, discreetly removing wet glasses from mahogany table tops, slip ping away now and then to empty the solid Swedish crystal ashtrays.

And Beachy Marsh got drunk. He slapped people on the
shoulder, told jokes, laughed uproariously, and also went
around emptying the ashtrays of their cherry-colored stubs, all the while attempting to control the tips of his shirt collar, which had become damp from perspiration and were rolling up into the air like horns.

Following Mrs. Bridge halfway up the carpeted stairs he said hopefully, “There was a young maid from Madras, who had a magnificent ass; not rounded and pink, as you probably think it was gray, had long ears, and ate grass.”

“Oh, my word!” replied Mrs. Bridge, looking over her
shoulder with a polite smile but continuing up the stairs, while the auto salesman plucked miserably at his collar.

Such a magnificent limerick may well have been written by Evan Connell himself. If so, we thank him for that too.

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God At Work – Keeping Girl Friend Happy

The inimitable Simon Rich – son of Frank Rich, no less – pulled off a classic a year ago, which deserves to be memorialized. Yes, talking of great things in terms of the trivialities of daily life – is there a Chinese laundry in Heaven that doesn’t shrink shirts, for example – is an old comedy trick that Woody Allen has polished to perfection, but Rich’s genius is to take it over the top to some celestial sphere where every line becomes a poignant existential truth.

JANUARY 9, 2012

On the first day, God created the heavens and the earth.

“Let there be light,” He said, and there was light. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening—the first night.

On the second day, God separated the oceans from the sky. “Let there be a horizon,” He said. And lo: a horizon appeared and God saw that it was good. And there was evening—the second night.

On the third day, God’s girlfriend came over and said that He’d been acting distant lately.

“I’m sorry,” God said. “Things have been crazy this week at work.”

He smiled at her, but she did not smile back. And God saw that it was not good.

“I never see you,” she said.

“That’s not true,” God said. “We went to the movies just last week.”

And she said, “Lo. That was last month.”

And there was evening—a tense night.

On the fourth day, God created stars, to divide the light from the darkness. He was almost finished when He looked at His cell phone and realized that it was almost nine-thirty.

“Fuck,” He said. “Kate’s going to kill me.”

He finished the star He was working on and cabbed it back to the apartment.

“Sorry I’m late!” He said.

And lo: she did not even respond.

“Are you hungry?” He asked. “Let there be yogurt!” And there was that weird lo-cal yogurt that she liked.

“That’s not going to work this time,” she said.

“Look,” God said, “I know we’re going through a hard time right now. But this job is only temporary. As soon as I pay off my student loans, I’m going to switch to something with better hours.”

And she said unto Him, “I work a full-time job and I still make time for you.”

And He said unto her, “Yeah, but your job’s different.”

And lo: He knew immediately that He had made a terrible mistake.

“You think my job’s less important than yours?” she said.

“No!” God said. “Of course not! I know how difficult it is to work in retail—I’m totally impressed by what you do!”

“Today I had to talk to fourteen buyers, because it’s Fashion Week. And I didn’t even have time to eat lunch.”

“That’s so hard,” God said. “You work so hard.”

“How would you know? You never even ask about my day! You just talk about your work, for hours and hours, like you’re the center of the universe!”

“Let there be a back rub,” God said.

And He started giving her a back rub.

And she said unto Him, “Can you please take the day off tomorrow?”

And He said unto her, “Don’t you have to work tomorrow? I thought it was Fashion Week.”

“I can call in sick.”

And God felt like saying to her, “If your job is so important, how come you can just take days off whenever you feel like it?” But He knew that was a bad idea. So He said unto her, “I’m off Sunday. We can hang out Sunday.”

On the fifth day, God created fish and fowl to swim in the sea and fly through the air, each according to its kind. Then, to score some points, He closed the door to His office and called up Kate.

“I’m so happy to hear your voice,” she said. “I’m having the hardest day.”

“Tell me all about it,” God said.

“Caitlin is throwing this party next week for Jenny, but Jenny is, like, being so weird about it that I’m not even sure that it’s going to happen.”

“That’s crazy,” God said.

And she continued to tell Him about her friends, who had all said hurtful things to one another, each according to her kind. And while she was repeating something that Jenny had said to Caitlin God came up with an idea for creatures that roam the earth. He couldn’t get off the phone, though, because Kate was still talking. So He covered the receiver and whispered, “Let there be elephants.” And there were elephants and God saw that they were good.

But lo: she had heard Him create the elephants.

“Oh, my God,” she said. “You’re not even listening to me.”

“Kate . . .”

“It’s so obvious!” she said. “You care more about your stupid planet thing than you do about me!”

God wanted to correct her. It wasn’t just a planet He was creating; it was an entire universe. He knew, though, that it would be a bad idea to say something like that right now.

He said, “Listen. I’m really sorry, O.K.?”

But lo: she had already hung up on Him.

On the sixth day, God called in sick and surprised Kate at her store in Chelsea. She was in the back, reading a magazine.

“What are you doing here?” she asked.

“I blew off work,” He said. “I want to spend the day with you.”

“Really?” she said.

“Really,” He said.

And she smiled at Him so brightly that He knew He had made the right decision.


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Passing note: Why is ‘oily’ such a favorite for synonyms?

Why is oily such a favorite characterization for someone speaking that it has such a forest of synonyms?

Moby Thesaurus
Synonyms and related words:
Pecksniffian, adipose, adulatory, bland, blandishing, blarneying, blubbery, buttery, butyraceous, cajoling, canting, chrismal, chrismatory, complimentary, courtierly, courtly, disarming, fair-spoken, fat, fatty, fawning, fine-spoken, flattering, fulsome, glib, goody-goody, greased, greasy, gushing, holier-than-thou, honey-mouthed, honey-tongued, honeyed, hypocritic, hypocritical, ingratiating, insincere, insinuating, lardaceous, lardy, lubric, lubricated, lubricious, mealymouthed, mucoid, obsequious, oiled, oily-tongued, oleaginous, oleic, pharisaic, pharisean, rich, sanctimonious, sebaceous, servile, simon-pure, sleek, slick, sliddery, slimy, slippery, slippy, slithery, slobbery, smarmy, smooth, smooth-spoken, smooth-tongued, smug, soaped, soapy, soft-soaping, soft-spoken, sophisticated, suave, suave-spoken, suety, sycophantic, tallowy, unctuous, unguent, unguentary, unguentous, urbane, wheedling

Presumably this reflects the fact that wheedling or insincere charm is a such a common perception in human transactions, perhaps reflecting the imbalance of power which torments us in so many relationships!

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Jack Handey – Brief but Brilliant on Alexander the Great, World Conqueror

Just reread this jewel, Alexander the Great, Shouts and Murmurs, New Yorker March 12 2012.

Another young genius from Saturday Night Live. How come they are so turgid at SNL, which seems to be nothing but boring satires of TV shows when last we looked??

MARCH 12, 2012

Alexander the Great hung his head. He had conquered everything, and there was nothing left to conquer. “What about this area over here?” he said, pointing to an unshaded part of the map.

“You conquered that last week,” his top general said. “We haven’t had time to color it in yet.”

When Alexander started out, the world was fresh and new, begging to be conquered. At the age of ten, he conquered all of Greece, clad only in his underpants. He went on to vanquish the vast empire of Persia while totally nude and drunk. He woke up from sleepwalking one morning to discover that he had conquered Egypt. Once, he laid siege to a fortress all by himself, sneaking from bush to bush and popping up behind each one, pretending to be a different soldier.

There had been difficulties, to be sure. At a raucous victory dinner, a chicken bone became stuck in his throat. As he reached for a glass of water, he touched off a mousetrap, then another, and another. He began to flail about, and his foot got stuck in a bucket. Even like this, he conquered India.

On and on he went, conquering kingdom after kingdom. His generals would plead with him to stop, but he’d say, “Come on, just one more,” and they’d say, “Well, O.K.”

His empire became so large that, even today, if you meet a woman in a bar and invite her up to your apartment to see a map of Alexander’s empire, when she gets there and you show it to her she always says the same thing: “You’ve got to be kidding.”

Alexander smashed every army sent against him, slaughtering thousands. Those who fled the battlefield were hunted down and killed. Women and children were sold into slavery. But the happy times could not last. Eventually, there were no more people left to conquer.

“What about the Assyrians?” Alexander asked his generals.

“We conquered them,” one of them replied.

“O.K., how about the Bactrians?”

“Con-quered,” several generals said, in singsong.

Alexander was getting desperate. “What if we gave countries their freedom, then conquered them again?” The generals looked down at their feet. One coughed.

“Very well, then, I shall conquer the birds of the sky,” he said, but he was reminded that he had already done so, and also that he had been given an eloquent tribute speech by a parrot.

“What about the ants? Can’t we conquer them?” Reluctantly, one general unfurled a tiny document of surrender.

Seeking to console Alexander, the wisest of his counsellors said, “Perhaps, master, what you truly seek is not to conquer but to be conquered.”

Alexander picked up a spear and ran him through.

Rallying his troops, Alexander had them build a primitive rocket ship. He travelled to the moon with thirty hand-chosen men, holding their breath. They utterly surprised the moon men and laid waste to their planet.

In what was perhaps his greatest victory, Alexander conquered half the Kingdom of Heaven. Using sappers to undermine the pearly gates, he and his army poured in, riding captured war elephants, trampling angels and saints. But Heaven, as he realized, “is mostly clouds,” and he wisely withdrew.

Alexander was preparing to journey to another universe, which he hoped to burn down, when he died. At first, his generals didn’t believe it, but then his body was brought out, still clutching his sword and wearing his newly fashioned “space suit.”

They say that he was buried in the Caucasus, among the crocuses, but no one knows for sure. Legend has it that he will return again one day, perhaps in the not too distant future, when the world is once more in need of a good conquering. ♦

Jack Handey, comic genius.

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The story of Oog: first laugh-out-loud for the New Yorker

There is much that is highly amusing in the New Yorker, as the volume Fierce Pajamas proves with its selection of humorous pieces that have appeared over the years in America’s finest magazine, which brings a well phrased and well mannered briefing and accompanying cartoons and light entertainment to the educated bourgeoisie of the nation every week with great reliability.

There has never, however, in our experience, anyway, been such a hilarious three pages as the story of Ogg, which appeared earlier this month as a crowning achievement in humor for the year, if not the decade, in fact, if not the entire eighty odd year history of the publication.

Thank you , author of shining brilliance and lovable fun, and David Remnick, hard working and quality ensuring editor, for this wondrous peak of good humor which had us laughing out loud for the first time in our years of reading this well edited rag.

A Christmas present for the spirit, no less.


DECEMBER 17, 2012

I am Oog. I love Girl. Girl loves Boog.

It is bad situation.

Boog and I are very different people. For example, we have different jobs.

My job is Rock Thrower. I will explain what that is. There are many rocks all over the place and people are always tripping on them. So when I became a man, at age eleven, the Old Person said to me, “Get rid of all the rocks.” Since that day, ten years ago, I have worked very hard at this. Whenever it is light outside, I am gathering rocks and throwing them off the cliff.

Boog’s job is Artist. I will explain what that is. When he became a man, the Old Person said to him, “Cut down the trees so we have space to live.” But Boog did not want to do this, so now he smears paint inside caves. He calls his smears “pictures.” Everybody likes to look at them. But the person who likes to look at them most is Girl.

I love Girl. I will explain what that is. When I look at her, I feel sick like I am going to die. I have never had the Great Disease (obviously, because I am still alive). But my uncle described it to me. He said there is a tightness in your chest, you cannot breathe, and you have anger toward the Gods. I was going to ask him to explain more, but then he died. My point is: Girl makes me feel this way, like I am going to die. There are many women in the world. By last count, seven. But she is the only one I ever loved.

Girl lives on Black Mountain. It is called Black Mountain because (1) it is mountain and (2) it is covered in black rocks. Every day, Girl has to climb over the rocks to get to the river. It is too hard. She has small legs and she is often getting stuck. So one day I decided, “I will clear a path from Girl’s cave to the river.”

I have been working on Girl’s path for many years, picking up the black rocks and carrying them away. I never throw her rocks off the cliff like normal rocks. Instead, I put them in a pile next to my cave. I like to look at the pile, because it reminds me of how I am helping Girl. My mother, who I live with, says the pile “has to go.” (I worry that she will move the pile, but it is unlikely. After all, she is an elderly thirty-two-year-old woman.)

I have made good progress on Girl’s path, but there are still many rocks left. The job would go faster, but I am clearing the path in secret by the light of the moon. The reason is—and this is a hard thing to admit—I am afraid to talk to Girl. If she found out it was me clearing all the rocks, I’m sure she would say something to me like “Hello” or “Hi there.” And then I would be in trouble. Because the truth is I am not so good at making words.

Boog is very good at making words. For example, last week he showed off his new picture at the Main Cave. Everyone was expecting it to be a horse or a bear (all his pictures so far have been horses, bears, or a mix of horses and bears). But this picture was not of any animal. It was just a bunch of red streaks. People were angry.

“I wanted animals,” the Old Person said. “Where are the animals?”

It was bad situation. I thought that Boog would lose his job or maybe be killed by stones. But then Boog stood on a rock and spoke.

“My art is smart,” he said. “And anyone who does not get it is stupid.”

Everyone was quiet. We looked at the Old Person to see what he would say.

The Old Person squinted at the red streaks for a while. Then he rubbed his chin and said, “Oh, yes, now I get it. It is smart. People who do not get it are stupid.”

A few seconds later, everyone else got it.

“It is smart,” they said. “It is smart!”

The only person who did not get it was me. My beard began to sweat. I was scared that someone would ask me to make words about the picture. I headed slowly for the exit. I was almost out of the cave when Boog pointed his finger at me.

“Do you like it, Oog?”

Everyone stopped making words and looked at me.

“It is smart,” I said. I meant for my voice to sound big, but it came out small.

Boog smiled.

“Ah,” he said. “Then why don’t you explain it to us?”

I felt a burning on my skin. It was sort of like when you fall into a cooking fire and your body catches on fire. I looked at my feet and people started laughing.

I looked up at Girl to see if she was one of the ones laughing. She was not (thank Gods). But she could hear all the other people laughing and that was just as bad.

“I am tired from talking to people who are less smart,” Boog said. “I am going to mate with Girl now.”

He took Girl’s hand and started to mate with her. Some people stayed to watch, but most took this as their cue to leave.

On my way out, I heard Girl making sounds. They stayed in my head all night, like an echo in an empty cave.


The next day, I decided to become an Artist. I told my plan to Oog (there are several of us named Oog—I’m sorry if it is confusing) and he said, “You can’t be an Artist. It is hard.”

Oog agreed with him.

“You’re a Rock Thrower,” he said. “Stick with that.”

I was angry at Oog. Partly because he always takes Oog’s side. But mostly because I did not agree with his words.

Maybe Artist is hard job. It is not for me to say. But I would be surprised if it was as hard a job as Rock Thrower.

Throwing rocks is not so easy. For example, five years ago one of my shoulders detached from my arm when I was throwing a boulder off the cliff. And two years after that the other shoulder detached also. I can still throw rocks off the cliff. But now when I throw them I am screaming. Not just once in a while, but constantly. Every time I throw a rock, I am screaming, loud. I do not even realize I am screaming—it is just part of my life. Another thing is that sometimes I fall off the cliff, which is bad situation.

“I am going to make a picture,” I told the others. “A good one.”

“Who are you going to show it to?” Oog said. “Your mother?”

Everyone laughed: Oog, Oog, Moog, even Oog.

“No,” I said. “I will show it to Girl.”

No one made words after that.

I have never spoken to Girl, but one time she spoke to me. It was a long time ago, when we were still children.

It was the first day of school and we were learning to count. It was confusing. I am very good at some numbers. I understand “one” and “two” very well and I am O.K. with “three.” But when it gets to higher math, like “four” or “five,” I have trouble.

The Old Person had told us each to make a pile of five rocks. I did not know how many that was and it was getting to be my turn. It was bad situation.

The Old Person was about to call on me, when Girl whispered in my ear.

“You have too many rocks,” she said. “You need to take away four.”

I stared at her. I think she could tell from my eyes that I did not have a great grasp of “four.”

“It’s two twos,” she said.

I swallowed. To this day, I do not know what she meant by this.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “I will help you.”

The Old Person was about to look at my pile when Girl stood up and pointed into the forest.

“Predator!” she yelled.

By the time we came back from the Hiding Cave, it was night. On the second day of school, we graduated and I got my sheepskin just like everybody else. I wanted to thank Girl, but I did not know which words to make. So I said nothing.

Girl has a small head, so it is very strange how she fits so many things inside of it. She knows all the numbers: “six,” “eight”—you name it. But she also knows other things nobody else knows.

One time, I followed her down to the river. She was hunting fish in the normal way, by jabbing a stick in the water. After a long time, she caught a small flat fish. I assumed she would do the normal thing (rip off the head and eat the body), but instead she did the strangest thing I have ever seen. She put the stick—with the small fish still on it—back into the river. A short time later, she pulled the stick out. A bigger fish was on the stick. I do not understand how Girl did this. But I have thought a lot about what I saw, and I have developed a theory: she is a witch who knows magic.

Even though she is probably a witch, I still love her. My mother says that when you love someone you love them despite their flaws. For example, my father was not so good at hunting after a monster ate his arms. But my mother continued to mate with him, because she loved him.

Girl must really love Boog, because he has many flaws. He never smiles or shares his meat with other people. He is rude to the Old Person and will not rub his feet. And he isn’t very “down to earth.” For example, one day he stood on the big rock and said, “Everyone should worship me, for I am a living God.” Maybe he is right. I do not know how all that works. But he doesn’t have to say it on the rock.

Boog’s worst flaw, though, is that he disrespects Girl. It is subtle, but if you watch him closely you can tell. For example, sometimes he orders her to mate with him in front of crowds. I know this is his right (he is man, she is woman). But it is the way he orders her to mate that I do not like. He makes his voice big and snaps his fingers. It is like he is talking to a dog. If I owned Girl, I would only command her to mate with me in front of crowds if it seemed like she was in the mood to do that.

Boog has a lot going for him. He is very wealthy (three skins). He is maybe a God (unclear). He styles his hair in the new cool way (wet). He invented Art. But I still cannot understand why Girl is with him. As my father used to say, “There must be other monsters in that cave that we don’t know about.”

I decided to make my picture of a horse, because I knew that was a thing. It took a long time, for many reasons: (1) I could only work nights, because of my rock-throwing job; (2) it was my first time making Art; and (another reason) my mother was watching over my shoulder the whole time and making words. “You are bad at this,” she said. “You should stop because you are bad.” I love my mother and will always rub her feet, but sometimes I think she does not know how to help.

Finally, after many days of work, I finished my picture. I was about to add my handprint when I heard a familiar laugh.

I turned around; Boog was there.

“What a smart picture,” he said, clapping his hands. “You are really smart.”

I smiled. It was very nice, I thought, for Boog to say nice things about my picture.

“Thank you,” I said.

“I was being sarcastic.”

A long time passed. I did not know this word, but was afraid to admit it.

“I am glad you like my picture,” I said.

Boog cursed the Gods under his breath. “The picture is bad,” he said. “O.K.? It stinks. I do not like it.”

I sighed. I was beginning to see what he meant.

My plan had been to show my picture to Girl. But I started to worry that she would not like it. The reviews, so far, were not great.

Oog said, “It is the worst picture made yet by a human.”

Moog said, “It is proof that you are a stupid person.”

The Old Person said, “I always knew you were dumb. It is known by everyone. But this picture makes me realize you are even dumber than it was believed.”

One of the main problems, people explained, was that I had not given the horse any legs. Also, I had given it hands, forgetting that a horse has no hands.

I was proud of the picture when I painted it, but people’s words had made me ashamed. I decided it was best to destroy it, before Girl found out about it.

I grabbed some empty bladders and brought up water from the river. I was about to splash the painting when I heard that laugh again.

“Don’t destroy it yet,” Boog said. “There is someone who wants to see it.”

He grabbed Girl by the arm and thrust her in front of my picture. It was bad situation.

“Tell Oog what you think of it,” Boog said.

Girl mumbled something, but it was too soft for me to hear.

“Tell him!” Boog ordered.

“I do not like it,” Girl said. “You are not smart. I love Boog and not you.”

I stood there in silence. Hot water came out of my eyeballs.

Boog grabbed one of my bladders, wet his hand, and slicked back his hair. Then he walked over to my pile of black rocks, picked one up, and hurled it against my picture.

“Let’s go,” he said to Girl.

She started to follow him. As she was leaving, she paused to take a rock from my pile. I was afraid she would throw it at my picture, like Boog had. But instead she held it up to her face and squinted at it.

“Let’s go!” Boog shouted.

She followed him into the woods, still holding the rock in her hand.

My mother woke me in the night.

“A monster is here to murder us,” she said.

I nodded. This is usual occurrence.

“What kind of monster? Wolf?”

She shook her head. “It is a clever monster. Listen.”

We were silent for a while; soon, I heard a strange sound. The monster was throwing rocks against the cave, one after the other.

I took my kill stick and headed outside. I saw a figure in the shadows and was about to charge it when the moon appeared suddenly between the clouds.


She was standing on the edge of the forest, a black rock in her hand.

“Sorry if I scared you,” she said. “I came to say thank you.”

I was confused. “For what?”

“For clearing me a path.”

“How did you know it was me?”

“I took a rock from your pile and compared it with the ones on my mountain. They’re the same kind.”

I walked cautiously toward her.

“Are you a witch?” I asked.

She laughed.

“I’m not a witch! I just used common sense. I mean, there are thousands of black rocks piled up next to your cave.”

I was still confused. She put her hand on my arm and the hairs on it stood up.

“Thank you for clearing all the rocks,” she said, looking into my eyes. “It is a good path. You are good at clearing the rocks.”

For the second time that night, hot water came out of my eyeballs.

“I’m sorry I said those mean things about your picture,” Girl said. “Boog made me.”

I was shocked; that had not occurred to me. Boog had been clever.

“Does that mean you like my Art?” I asked.

She looked at my horse and hesitated.

“It’s interesting,” she said. “But you know what I really like? Your rock pile.”

She walked over to it. “It’s sort of like a sculpture.”

“What is sculpture?”

“Like a picture in three dimensions.”

Much time passed in silence.

“Can I impregnate you?” I asked.


“I know I am not smart like Boog. I do not understand Art and I am bad with the numbers. But I will work hard to clear the rocks for you. And when you have child I will clear the rocks for the child. I will clear all the rocks for you and the child until I am eaten by a monster or die of the Great Disease. I will make you many paths so you can go all the places you want.”

I paused to catch my breath. It was the most words I had ever made at one time.

“What about Boog?” she said.

I thought about it for a moment.

“I will murder him,” I said.

She smiled and kissed me on the cheek. It was like it had been in my dreams.

We made many words that night. Girl explained that she never really loved Boog. He just seemed like her only option. No one else had ever asked to mate with her. The other six men on earth, including me, had been too afraid.

I confessed that I did not understand Boog’s last picture and she laughed.

“No one did,” she said. “Not even Boog.”

The stars were out and Girl counted them out loud until I fell asleep.

The next day, I took a large rock and struck it against Boog’s head so that his skull cracked open and he died. Afterward, Girl and I went swimming.

We have decided to have many children: one, two—maybe even a higher number.

I love Girl. Girl loves me.

It is good situation. ♦

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George Saunders’ Dream Story

Style and substance achieve peak of accomplishment

Semplica-Girls Diaries is sharp, humorous satire

Understated comedy more telling than any tragedy

Its famous cartoons aside, there is humor elsewhere in the New Yorker, even in the fiction department, where it can serve to make a point more sharply than any sober prose might do. For example, the Semplica-Girl Diaries by George Saunders in the Oct 15 2012 issue reads at first like another priceless Pooter saga from Diary of a Nobody (one of the highest peaks in English humor), essayed this time by a middle aged suburban father some time in the future.

September 3rd
Having just turned forty, have resolved to embark on grand project of writing every day in this new black book just got at OfficeMax. Exciting to think how in one year, at rate on one page/day, will have written three hundred and sixty-five pages, and what a picture of life and times then available for kids & grandkids,, even greatgrandkids, whoever, all are welcome (!) to see how life really was/is now. Because what do we know of other times really?….

Soon, however, the amusing story reveals a much darker layer, and finally – beware! – turns out to be not at all a lighthearted work of unintended self mockery so much as an alarming satire taking to task the thoughtless American exploitation of the immuigrant underclass, as if we ourselves aren’t in the same boat, struggling to improve our family’s lot by doing undignified and often degrading work.

But there is something about the style in which the story is told – truncated but heartfelt notes on his supposedly humdrum day – which strikes a note of humor throughout, nonetheless. The truth turns out to be that this only conceals the cruelty of which the protagnist is completely unaware. Saunder’s explanation of his writing the story on the New Yorker site has an interesting encapsulation of this tendency of culture to have blind spots of cruelty or stupidity of which anyone immersed in it is completely unaware.

If you have a copy of the Oct 15 2012 issue still around, you are lucky. You can enjoy this remarkable story first, which you will have to do if any of the following is going to make sense:


“The Semplica-Girl Diaries” deals with a family in a not-too-distant future (or perhaps an alternate present or past?) that is struggling to keep up with the Joneses—which, in this society, means leasing some unusual garden ornaments. How did the idea of the Semplica Girls come to you?

Well, it’s embarrassing. Somewhere around 1998, I had this incredibly vivid dream in which I went (in my underwear) to a (non-existent) window in the bedroom of our house in Syracuse and looked down into our backyard. Balmy summer night, beautiful full moon, etc., etc. I was looking at something, and it wasn’t clear what, but I was getting this incredible feeling of happiness and well-being and deep satisfaction, as in, Wow, I finally was able to really step up for our family. I am such a lucky guy—to have this amazing wife and kids and now, at last, to be able to do justice to them in this super way. Then the yard came into focus, and what was out there was … as I describe in the story. And the weird(er) part was that, even having seen that, the “I” in the dream continued to be happy: “Jeez, just look at that, it’s so beautiful, and I was able to do that—man, I have really arrived.” And so on—this lush feeling of gratitude (which I was actually feeling, those days, in real life) but grafted onto this strange vision.

[spoiler title=”Click the button to see the rest of the discussion by George Saunders and readers of his story The Semplica-Girl Diaries” open=”0″ style=”1″]

Now, there have been lots of times when I’ve had a dream and woken up thinking, Hey, great story idea! But most of those fizzle out as soon as I realize that, for example, a chess-playing penguin with the voice of Marlene Dietrich may not “signify.” This one was different—it just lingered. So I thought, O.K., let’s start with that image and see if we can figure out who that guy is, and what world he’s living in. That is, what conditions pertain in his world that make those feelings possible, natural, and reasonable? What intrigued me was not so much the image in the yard, but his delight about it. In all other respects, the guy in the dream was me.

I hate to be so black-and-white about your work, but it’s easy to read the SGs as a metaphor for all the underprivileged immigrants and refugees who come to this country and work menial jobs in order to survive and to support families back home. Was that at least part of what you wanted to explore here?

Sure, yes, I think anybody would have that interpretation of it. The minute I woke up, I knew that the women in the yard were symbols for, you know, “the oppressed,” and that the whole story, as I was imagining it at that moment, would be “about” the way that people of means use and abuse people without. So that was the danger—that the story might turn out to be (merely) about that. In which case, who needs it, you know? If the only thing the story did was say, “Hey, it’s really wrong to hang up living women in your backyards, you capitalist-pig oppressors,” that wasn’t going to be enough. We kind of know that already. It had to be about that plus something else.

I find this is often the case. Early on, a story’s meaning and rationale seem pretty obvious, but then, as I write it, I realize that I know the meaning/rationale too well, which means that the reader will also know it—and so things have to be ramped up. Einstein said (or, at least, I am always quoting him as having said), “No worthy problem is ever solved within the plane of its original conception.” So this was an example of that: my “original conception” (i.e., the dream and its associated meaning) had to be outgrown—or built upon.

These sorts of thematic challenges are, for me, anyway, only answerable via the line-by-line progress through the story. Trying to figure out what happens next, and in what language. So, in this case, I just started out by trying to get the guy to that window, in his underwear, having that same feeling.

A twist in your story is that, instead of being virtually invisible to the middle-class and the rich, these immigrants are given pride of place as decorative elements. Is this job worse—or better—than doing back-breaking labor harvesting crops or cleaning bathrooms? Or even, say, reporting on one’s coworkers’ recycling and ergonomic errors?

Well, I think their job is worse. They’ve got holes in their heads, for one thing; the surgery is risky; they’re away from their families for years at a time; it’s incredibly boring; and all the while, they have to watch this other family happily living right over there, in that warm, cozy house. Although at least they’ve got health insurance, ha ha ha.

But it was kind of interesting. As I said above, I first got the germ of the story in 1998 and started plunking away at it. Then, in 2003, I got sent to Dubai for a writing assignment, and it was like being surrounded by real-life SGs. The whole city was built and run by people who were contracted to be away from home for years at a time, were very low-paid, and were housed in horrific conditions (or, at least, the most poorly paid laborers were). I went into that non-fiction assignment imagining I’d write that story—the story of the rich crapping down on the poor in the name of luxury—and I sort of did, but, once there, also found that (1) yes, this was true, and yet (2) there was another side to it, namely that a lot of the workers were wildly happy to be there, because, even given the hardships, they (and their families, to whom they were often sending their entire salaries) were far better off than they had been back home.

So that made me think, Well, as weird as my story is, it isn’t entirely without corollary in the real world. And it also suggested a possible complication that might get me out of the too-easy-metaphor dilemma described above: make the SGs happy to be doing this “work.” Suddenly, anyone who was “against” it (i.e., the reader, Eva) was sort of out of step with everyone else in the fictive world, including the SGs themselves.

Why the microline through the brain, instead of a less invasive harness?

The honest answer is because it was that way in the dream. Part of what moved me about the dream was the extremity of it—it was very unreasonable. And since I was interested in writing the story because of the lingering power of the dream, I was loathe to change the basic terms of the dream—especially in the direction of softening them.

To look at that choice as a reader, instead of a writer: If we imagine two cultures, one in which the residents harness poor foreign women and hang them in their yards, and another one in which they surgically put wires through the heads of poor foreign women in order to hang them up—well, those are two different cultures, and the second one is, I think, more interesting. Why? Because that second culture is more intense. It’s more direct in enacting its desires. It has to be richer (to afford the surgeries); its taste is more refined and strange and perverse/decadent. It is a more demanding, narcissistic culture. It doesn’t like the harness idea because the harnesses would look baggy, the SGs would hang at strange angles—something like that. But another (nastier) difference is that there is an element of complete physical domination/subjugation in the surgical approach that this culture (subconsciously) likes and wants; and that, in turn, says something deep about the lengths to which this (imaginary, I assure you!) culture is willing to go to optimize its aesthetic landscaping choice, i.e., its “pleasure.”

But actually, I just thought all that up. The real reason is that the “through-the-head” thing was what came to me in my dream, and I continued to find it interesting, and whenever I thought of softening it, I went, “Bleh.” Or, as the kids say, “Meh.”

Where do your sympathies lie here? Is Eva right to deplore the practice? Is her father right to think of it as a potential step up for the women and their families?

My answer is YES. “Yes” to both questions. You’ve put your finger on the essential energy of the story. It felt like the more I could get the reader to answer “yes” to both of those questions, the more powerful the story would be.

The artist’s job, I think, is to be a conduit for mystery. To intuit it, and recognize that the story-germ has some inherent mystery in it, and sort of midwife that mystery into the story in such a way that it isn’t damaged in the process, and may even get heightened or refined.

So the job here was to push the story in the direction of “more mystery” (i.e., make it less reducible to a simple reading), which (it turned out, after all those years of work) meant: make Eva’s decision more problematic. If, in the world of the story, Eva’s decision is a no-brainer, and she is a complete hero, then the energy goes down. The story becomes (merely) a Demonstrative Moral Tale, which rings hollow, because it’s been rigged. So I spent a lot of time trying to find ways to make it more of a close call at the end. My loyalties are with Eva, completely—I mean, I think she’s sort of a moral giant. She does this thing with everyone against her—the culture, her family, even (at first) the SGs themselves. And then her family’s reaction is pretty harsh: they’ll forgive her. But nobody says, you know, “Honey, you were right, thanks for being so good and saving us from ourselves.” But, at the same time, if I were her father, and I lived in this world (where nobody I knew had an ethical problem with the SGs), I’d be worried: Why is Eva so impulsive? Why so rash? So heedless? Is my kid delusional? Why does she seem so unaware of, and unconcerned about, the effects of her actions on us, her dear family? This level of disengagement and narcissism and self-righteousness may not bode well for her future. Etc, etc.

Through this well-intentioned, sad-sack diarist, you also get at some crucial and universal things about aspiration and envy and the conflicting impulses of parenthood. As a mother, I can definitely identify with the Whac-a Mole analogy. Is there some of your own experience in there?

Oh, sure. I think anyone who is raising kids and doesn’t have infinite money will identify with the pressure he’s under. You love them so much and, especially in our culture, you don’t want to come up short. You don’t want to be that parent—the one who dresses his kid in a cloth sack when all the other kids are in Armani cloth sacks—especially in a time like ours, when materialism is not only rampant and ascendant but is fast becoming the only game in town.

When our kids were small, we were always overextended on our credit cards and, at the same time (recognizing that the period during which they would be small and at home and influenceable, etc. etc., was very brief), were always trying to put together the best life possible for them, cash on hand be damned.

I always keenly felt the fear that we might be running materially behind other families. I knew this wasn’t ultimately important—that morality and love and art were the most important things, of course, of course—but, still, I sort of wanted to do all of that PLUS be able to run with the pack, or even slightly ahead of the pack, if it could be arranged. To be morally correct AND eternally blamelessly gleaming and beautifully dressed, somehow.

In thinking about this guy, who was mostly but not entirely me, and trying to understand how “I” might come to not only tolerate but even crave having four SGs in my yard, I thought a good bit about our slavery days here in the U.S., and also about the Holocaust, especially as presented in that amazing book by Victor Klemperer, “I Will Bear Witness.” When something really bad is going on in a culture, the average guy doesn’t see it. He can’t. He’s average. And is surrounded by and immersed in the cant and discourse of the status quo. The average person in the U.S., in, say, 1820, assumed white superiority, and, if he happened to be against slavery, was for a gradual solution, which probably involved sending all the slaves back to Africa, notwithstanding the fact that most of them had never been there and were Americans in every respect. And this would be the nice, moderate, urbane, educated person of that time, who fancied himself “progressive.” Likewise, even Klemperer, a Jew who would end up losing everything to the Nazis, didn’t seem to see it coming. He would note things about Hitler and the Nazis very peripherally in his diary, but his main focus was on the minutiae of his life—his wife was being difficult, he’d hit the fence with the car, he was having panic attacks, etc. etc. (Whenever his colleagues or his neighbors took something away from him because he was a Jew, they would always explain it to him à la “Those dopes in Berlin are making us do this,” and he would accept this gracefully—“I know, I know it’s not you, it’s Berlin.”) Also, interestingly, he was a professor who wrote about French literature, often from the perspective of “the French personality.” So even the idea that there was some sort of Jewish personality—i.e., an innate national or ethnic personality—seemed O.K. to him. I’m guessing that when the Nazis started talking about “Jewish tendencies” he objected to the mischaracterization of those “tendencies” but not necessarily to the idea that a “race” had “tendencies.”

Anyway—it’s interesting when you realize that, whatever your (our) culture is doing that will have future generations laughing at you, or hating you, you are, by definition, blind to it at the moment. Or most of us are. I’m guessing I am, for example.

So that was who I imagined the narrator to be: a loving, kind guy, who is just like us (me) in his concerns and his basic values and his love for his family—except he’s got this one blind spot, which I might have, too, if I were living in his world.

Another thing the story ended up being about, at least for me, was this notion that you can do everything right and still bring the whole house down with just one such blind spot. Life, in other words, can be a very harsh affair, morally. It exploits/punishes even a very small defect in a person.

Where did the word “Semplica” come from? Does it have some special meaning for you?

That was what they were called in the dream. I think I woke up knowing that. There’s nothing symbolic or secret about it. And I somehow knew from the beginning that “Semplica” was the name of the guy who had “pioneered this innovative technology.”

One thing I always feel in the midst of trying to talk coherently about a story I’ve finished is that, you know, ninety per cent of it was intuitive, done at-speed, for reasons I can’t quite articulate, except in the “A felt better than B” way. All these choices add up, and make the surface of the story, and, of course, the thematics and all that—but I’m not usually thinking about any of that too much, or too overtly. It’s more feeling than thinking—or a combination of the two, with feeling being in charge, and thinking sort of running around behind, making overly literal suggestions, and those feelings being sounded out and exercised and manifested via heavy editing and rewriting (as opposed to, say, planning and deciding). The important part of the writing process, for me, is trying to make choices that push the story in the most interesting direction, by which I mean the direction that causes the story to give off the most light. The story’s goal is to be fascinating and stimulating and irreducible; the writer’s job is to micromanage the text to make this happen.

Here, it felt to me that what made the light come off the story was (1) the language (the way the truncated diary syntax produced strange little textual moments) and (2) anything that heightened the ambiguity of Eva’s actions.

What I realized very late in the game was that the narrator has something deeply in common with the SGs, which is aspiration—he can’t see it, even at the end, but it’s true. Or maybe he’s just starting to see it, there at the end of the story. When he starts thinking about the SGs’ families back in their home countries, I imagine him getting a bit of a red face and not knowing (or pretending not to know) why. Through the whole story he’s been keeping himself apart from the SGs, physically and emotionally, but, at the end there, he might be starting to see that he’s actually quite similar to them, in his love for his family and in how far he’s willing to go to satisfy his family’s needs. The only difference is that he was born here, and his job affords him (a little) more dignity. The reason he hasn’t felt more sympathy for the SGs, or really thought directly about them in a simple human way, is that he’s been blocking. They remind him too much of himself.

Splendid! This is a keeper. From the very beginning it took root in me and is one of those stories that is going to stay with me and revisit as it chooses. In your discussion of father’s maybe/maybe not coming to new understanding, it was in these last few paragraphs that the notion of Eva (or perhaps Pop)would be put on “contract” to get the family out of the hole they were in. So is growing understanding/ambivalence was there for me. Thanks so much!
POSTED 11/10/2012, 10:24:16AM BY MEHORTON
I think you can have a morally corrupt narrator, as this story does, without the story becoming “(merely) a Demonstrative Moral Tale,” if you allow the narrator enough complexity, which the story also does. I disagree, however, with the author’s apparent need to draw the reader into the narrator’s delusions for him to feel the story is a success. In other words, no, I did not feel the SGs were happy and I did not feel this was any kind of a step up for them, which made the story even more powerful for me. Also, given what had gone before, the family’s ambivalent response to Eva’s heroism felt absolutely true to me, and I did not see how this could even be matter for an authorly decision. The whole story, which completely engaged and stimulated me, put me in mind of Thorstein Veblen’s discussion of the decoration of one’s servants (finely dressing footmen, etc.)as a component of conspicuous consumption.
POSTED 11/5/2012, 11:56:18AM BY MONAWILLIAMS
This story hit me in my solar plexus. Loved it so much!
POSTED 10/30/2012, 10:09:22PM BY KATIENORTON
I love this story!! Genius!!
POSTED 10/21/2012, 10:00:18AM BY ADOLGER
I read this story after a day at work during which my ‘performance’ was ‘managed,’ and my bleak mood was immediately lifted by reading George Saunders’ portrayal of the same process. Even though the story has a bleakness of its own, its overwhelming effect on me is to lighten the burden of social oppressiveness. I’m not surprised that part of the story comes from an actual dream; I find that some dreams have the same mentally liberating effect. Satire this good is medicinal.
POSTED 10/21/2012, 9:50:02AM BY PAVLOV
This is one of the most affecting short stories I have ever read in my 60 years of life (did a degree in English literature).
POSTED 10/16/2012, 12:18:52PM BY PJANE
Mr. Saunders and to whom it may concern: I just finished reading this story – had to read it twice.(Cringeworthy confession: I almost came down to Google “Semplica Girls” before the penny dropped). I grew up with the New Yorker and have been reading it my whole adult life. I have read many brilliant things here but never one better than this. I am thinking of taking one of my 19th Century Staffordshire transferware platters off its wooden stand and replacing it with this issue, opened to this story. Perhaps I will put some tealights in front of it and turn one page a day. (Well, maybe best not light the candles; my copy got splashed when I climbed out of the tub and its structural integrity has been compromised). Still. I think it merits a kind of altar. Thank you. I salute you.
POSTED 10/15/2012, 1:45:27PM BY KIMVE
Very powerful story. Actually, perfect. Only one thing puzzles me: On the first page, Eva is described as “middle child.” On the last page, she is referred to as “our youngest.” Am I nuts, or is this an actual error on the part of the amazing George Saunders? (Much more likely am nuts, but need to ask & make fool of self anyway.) hellonwheels
POSTED 10/13/2012, 8:48:21AM BY HELENWEAVER
How very interesting on so many levels…Mr. Saunders presaged the whole 1% phenomenon, the gross excesses they exemplify, and their disdainful attitudes toward “the rest”; at the same time, the delusional Mr. Everyone aspires to those same excesses, believing them to be “the good life.” In fact, sadly, these people share the same world view, albeit, with little in common. Eva’s father at least knows what he should be doing with his children – he just can’t get around to it. Easier to emulate that 1%, just in WalMart style. Both oblivious to the suffering of others, at least those outside of their immediate families. At the same time, the description of concern, love and care that Mr. Saunders allows Eva, Lilly, and Thomas’ parents to show for them is so heartfelt and universal. So sad that while trying to give their kids the best they are really just inculcating them in the vapid, empty calorie lifestyle they aspire to. Great story. Very provocative.
POSTED 10/12/2012, 11:31:41PM BY MAGNOTTA
I love George Saunders because the people he creates are trying so hard to make a completely insane world normal. When I read Semplica Girls I got an awful feeling that Eva’s power to be heroic could end with her and her sisters hanging up in someone’s garden, indentured for the debt they owed.
POSTED 10/12/2012, 7:21:15PM BY NINJANURSE

Thank you Ms Treisman and Mr Saunders. After listening to Mr Saunders read this wonderful story on my phone, finding this interview put the cherry on top. Love New Yorker short stories!
POSTED 10/10/2012, 4:42:32PM BY MAIRIBE
Hidden content[/spoiler]

In thinking about this guy, who was mostly but not entirely me, and trying to understand how “I” might come to not only tolerate but even crave having four SGs in my yard, I thought a good bit about our slavery days here in the U.S., and also about the Holocaust, especially as presented in that amazing book by Victor Klemperer, “I Will Bear Witness.” When something really bad is going on in a culture, the average guy doesn’t see it. He can’t. He’s average. And is surrounded by and immersed in the cant and discourse of the status quo. The average person in the U.S., in, say, 1820, assumed white superiority, and, if he happened to be against slavery, was for a gradual solution, which probably involved sending all the slaves back to Africa, notwithstanding the fact that most of them had never been there and were Americans in every respect. And this would be the nice, moderate, urbane, educated person of that time, who fancied himself “progressive.” Likewise, even Klemperer, a Jew who would end up losing everything to the Nazis, didn’t seem to see it coming. He would note things about Hitler and the Nazis very peripherally in his diary, but his main focus was on the minutiae of his life—his wife was being difficult, he’d hit the fence with the car, he was having panic attacks, etc. etc. (Whenever his colleagues or his neighbors took something away from him because he was a Jew, they would always explain it to him à la “Those dopes in Berlin are making us do this,” and he would accept this gracefully—“I know, I know it’s not you, it’s Berlin.”) Also, interestingly, he was a professor who wrote about French literature, often from the perspective of “the French personality.” So even the idea that there was some sort of Jewish personality—i.e., an innate national or ethnic personality—seemed O.K. to him. I’m guessing that when the Nazis started talking about “Jewish tendencies” he objected to the mischaracterization of those “tendencies” but not necessarily to the idea that a “race” had “tendencies.”

A wonderful example of how a fine intelligence can inform not only a perfect story but the comments of the author, which make perfect sense.

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Frederic Raphael Wrote Diamond Faceted “Glittering Prizes”

1976 novel glitters with his unique genius for loaded remarks

Hyperaware Cambridge striver maps group’s life progress

Saying much more with very much less

In Manhattan sometimes it seems the less you pay the more you get. This is certainly often true in books. We paid a dollar (and the book was labeled 50c) for a paperback copy of Frederic Raphael’s masterwork Glittering Prizes in Housing Works, where we went to listen to a panel on privacy and the internet, only to be bored by the trivia from the supposed authorities at the table. We lucked into the perfect antidote riffling through the dollar trolley.

We knew Raphael not only as the American born (1931) author of the TV series made from his book but also as the wit of sociology who scripted (and won an Oscar for) Darling (1965), Julie Christie’s first major film. Playing a lead role opposite Dirk Bogarde and Lawrence Harvey, Christie proved their equal in dominating the screen, but the real star of the movie was the script. Seldom has there been a wittier script than Darling’s. It might almost be viewed as the screen equivalent of The Importance of Being Earnest. Not quite a necklace of verbal diamonds on that celestial level, perhaps, but certainly a string of pearls with shiningly clever lines which delineated the petty decadence and ambitions of swinging sixties London spot on.

The book is a similar tour de force, quite exceptional in showing off Raphael’s ability to signal huge swathes of attitude and even genuine emotion in a remark as short as a couple of words. Even the reviews which uniformly praised it as brilliant at the time failed to realize how unique it was and has been since, as far as I know. Anyone who reads it will find themselves talking in pithier terms and writing more succinctly, too.

(Here you seem to have forgotten to add some examples. – Ed.)

Simply put, in Raphael’s hands, less means more. The less he writes, the more meaning he packs into it. All with a Pinteresque illumination of meaning in its spaces.

So what ever happened to Raphael?

Well, well. Just as we suspected. He won an Oscar for his screenplay for Darling. The bio reveals he was born in 1931 in Chicago but schooled in England at Charterhouse and then St Johns College, Cambridge, and wrote other screenplays including Nothing But The Best, the excellent 1964 film, Far From The Madding Crowd, and Eyes Wide Shut, the last film by the estimable Stanley Kubrick, though reckoned by many the director’s only flop.

The latter resulted in Eyes Wide Open, a memoir of Raphael’s collaboration with Stanley Kubrick (he wrote the first draft of Eyes Wide Shut, apparently, which the director then adapted to his own purpose) which so alienated people concerned with the movie as well as family and friends of Kubrick (Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg among them) that Raphael was not invited to its premiere! Subsequently he wrote the introduction to a new translation, published by Penguin, of Arthur Schnitzler’s Dream Story, the basis for Eyes Wide Shut, and a Wall Street Journal book review in 2011 entitled How Stanley Kubrick Met His Waterloo, a comment on a book which is an archive of Kubrick’s effort to do a film on Napoleon. The review highlights Kubrick’s ignorance of France and history, but still ends by saluting him as a grandmaster of film.

Anyhow, we realize we should give an excerpt from Glittering Prizes to show what we mean, so we are looking for one on the Web to save typing it out. Every remark is a double entendre, a pun of an unexpected sort. As a way of spicing up conversation, it is always fun. But Raphael always makes it mean something more than a joke.

Oddly enough this kind of density of expression can come off as too precious, and certainly listening over again to the panel where Raphael speaks on Glittering Prizes on this podcast: Raphael, Cont, Bryan Cheyette on Fame and Fortune at Jewish Book Week one can form a mild distaste for Raphael’s spontaneous remarks which are as pointed, brief and perfectly phrased as his writing, since one senses that they are indeed supremely self conscious and even defensive in a way that their very quality can get irritating, but this may be because the topic itself is inevitably as tasteless as the cultural prejudice it embodies.

Or it could simply be that if you have lived in America long enough the “you know”s and “I mean”s and “anyway”s fake casualness and preciousness of English literary chat on the Beeb – caught perfectly in style in Darling as Dirk Bogarde listens to a tape of such a program – followed by perfectly formulated comment becomes irritating, since it is unnatural to those who never attended Oxbridge and aims at a false impression of modesty and honest confiding which actually overlays an arrogance and on a deeper hidden level a fear that disturbs one’s focus on what is being said.

Possibly it is a mistake to be too brilliant since it can come off as a defense rather than a natural talent, and distract from what one is trying to get across, at least in person, though on the page it seems more attractive, if only because it saves the reader’s time.

Frederick Raphael on how things have changed

Miranda Seymour in the Guardian on how Raphael’s career rocket sputtered

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A few words from Schopenhauer

Celebrated curmudgeon holds forth on Authorship

Part of The Art of Literature in his Complete Essays

Is he still up to date and relevant? Yes

It took us some time to find out that Schopenhauer’s amusing curmudgeonry is considered pessimistic by the world of Wiki and other authorities (joke), but we find him equable in his evisceration of the follies of man and woman, and not very convincing in his fundamental view, if that is what it is said to be, that t’were better never to have been born, since he obviously finds life interesting enough to consider and comment upon at length.

Anyhow we found the following quotes on the topic of authors and books in the old and brittle pages of our copy of The Complete Essays which we record here for our contemplation later, and possible edification.

Writing for money and reservation of copyright are, at bottom, the ruin of literature. No one writes anything that is worth writing, unless he writes entirely for the sake of his subject.

Every author degenerates as soon as he begins to put pen to paper in any way for the sake of gain. The best works of the greatest men all come from the time when they had to write for nothing or for very little.

That Spanish proverb holds good, which declares money and honour are not to be found in the same purse – honora y provecho no caben en un saco.

There is no greater mistake than to suppose that the last work is always the more correct; that what is written later on is in every case an improvement on what is written before; and that change always means progress.

If the reader wishes to study any subject, let him beware of rushing to the newest books upon it, and confining his attention to them alone, under the notion that science is always advancing, and that the old books have been drawn upon in the writing of the new.

In regard to the form, the peculiar character of a book depends on the person who wrote it. It may treat of matters which are accessible to everyone and are well known; but it is the way in which they are treated, what it is that is thought about them, that gives the book its value; and this comes from the author.

The public is very much more concerned to have matter than form; and for this very reason it is deficient in any high degree of culture. The public shows its preference in this respect in the most laughable way when it comes to deal with poetry; for there it devotes much trouble to the task of tracking out the actual events or personal circumstances in the life of the poet which served as the occasion of his various works; nay, these events and circumstances come in the end to be of greater importance than the works themselves; and rather than read Goethe himself, people prefer to read what has been written about him, and to study the legend of Faust more industriously than the drama of the same name.

The chief qualities which enable a man to converse well are intelligence, discernment, wit and vivacity: these supply the form of conversation. But it is not long before attention has to be paid to the matter of which he speaks; in other words, the subjects about which it is possible to converse with him – his knowledge. If this is very small, his conversation will not be worth anything, unless he possesses the above named formal qualities in a very exceptional degree; for he will have nothing to talk about but those facts of life and nature which everyone knows.

Every mediocre writer tries to mask his own natural style, because in his heart he knows the truth of what I am saying. He is thus forced, at the outset, to give up any attempt at being frank or naive – a privilege which is thereby reserved for superior minds, conscious of their own worth, and therefore sure of themselves. What I mean is that these everyday writers are absolutely unable to resolve upon writing just as they think; because they have a notion that, ere they to do so, their work might possibly look very childish and simple. For all that, it would not be without its value. If they would only go honestly to work, and say, quite simply, the things they have really thought, and just as they have thought them, these writers would be readable and, within their own proper sphere, even instructive.

Nothing is easier than to write so that no one can understand; just as contrarily, nothing is more than to express deep things in such a way that every one must necessarily grasp them.

It is always the case that if a man affects anything, whatever it may be, it is just there that he is deficient. That is why it is praise to an author to say that he is naive; it means he need not shrink from showing himself as he is. Generally speaking, to be naive is to be attractive; while lack of naturalness is everywhere repulsive. As a matter of fact every really great writer tries to express his thoughts as purely, clearly, definitely and shortly as possible. Simplicity has always been held to be a mark of truth; it is also a mark of genius.

The first rule for a good style is that the author should have something to say; nay, this is in itself almost all that is necessary.

A good author, fertile in ideas, soon wins his reader’s confidence that, when he writes he has really and truly something to say; and this gives the intelligent reader patience to follow him with attention. Such an author, just because he really has something to say, will never fail to express himself in the simplest and most straightforward manner; because his object is to awake the very same thought in the reader that he has in himself.

Another characteristic of such writers is that they always avoid a positive assertion wherever they can possibly do so, in order to leave a loophole for escape in case of need. Hence they never fail to choose the more abstract way of expressing themselves; whereas intelligent people use the more concrete ; because the latter brings things more within the range of actual demonstration, which is the source of all evidence.

The very fact that these commonplace authors are never more than half-conscious when they write, would be enough to account for their dullness of mind and the tedious things they produce. I say they are only half-conscious, because they really do not themselves understand the meaning of the words they use: they take words ready-made and commit them to memory. Hence when they write, it is not so much words as whole phrases that they put together — phrases banales . This is the explanation of that palpable lack of clearly-expressed thought in what they say. The fact is that they do not possess the die to give this stamp to their writing; clear thought of their own is just what they have not got. And what do we find in its place?— a vague, enigmatical intermixture of words, current phrases, hackneyed terms, and fashionable expressions. The result is that the foggy stuff they write is like a page printed with very old type.
On the other hand, an intelligent author really speaks to us when he writes, and that is why he is able to rouse our interest and commune with us. It is the intelligent author alone who puts individual words together with a full consciousness of their meaning, and chooses them with deliberate design. Consequently, his discourse stands to that of the writer described above, much as a picture that has been really painted, to one that has been produced by the use of a stencil. In the one case, every word, every touch of the brush, has a special purpose; in the other, all is done mechanically.

An author follows a false aim if he tries to write exactly as he speaks. There is no style of writing but should have a certain trace of kinship with the epigraphic or monumental style, which is, indeed, the ancestor of all styles. For an author to write as he speaks is just as reprehensible as the opposite fault, to speak as he writes; for this gives a pedantic effect to what he says, and at the same time makes him hardly intelligible.

An obscure and vague manner of expression is always and everywhere a very bad sign. In ninety-nine cases out of a hundred it comes from vagueness of thought; and this again almost always means that there is something radically wrong and incongruous about the thought itself — in a word, that it is incorrect. When a right thought springs up in the mind, it strives after expression and is not long in reaching it; for clear thought easily finds words to fit it. If a man is capable of thinking anything at all, he is also always able to express it in clear, intelligible, and unambiguous terms. Those writers who construct difficult, obscure, involved, and equivocal sentences, most certainly do not know aright what it is that they want to say: they have only a dull consciousness of it, which is still in the stage of struggle to shape itself as thought. Often, indeed, their desire is to conceal from themselves and others that they really have nothing at all to say. They wish to appear to know what they do not know, to think what they do not think, to say what they do not say. If a man has some real communication to make, which will he choose — an indistinct or a clear way of expressing himself? Even Quintilian remarks that things which are said by a highly educated man are often easier to understand and much clearer; and that the less educated a man is, the more obscurely he will write — plerumque accidit ut faciliora sint ad intelligendum et lucidiora multo que a doctissimo quoque dicuntur …. Erit ergo etiam obscurior quo quisque deterior .
An author should avoid enigmatical phrases; he should know whether he wants to say a thing or does not want to say it. It is this indecision of style that makes so many writers insipid. The only case that offers an exception to this rule arises when it is necessary to make a remark that is in some way improper.

As exaggeration generally produces an effect the opposite of that aimed at; so words, it is true, serve to make thought intelligible — but only up to a certain point. If words are heaped up beyond it, the thought becomes more and more obscure again. To find where the point lies is the problem of style, and the business of the critical faculty; for a word too much always defeats its purpose. This is what Voltaire means when he says that the adjective is the enemy of the substantive . But, as we have seen, many people try to conceal their poverty of thought under a flood of verbiage.

A writer must make a sparing use of the reader’s time, patience and attention; so as to lead him to believe that his author writes what is worth careful study, and will reward the time spent upon it. It is always better to omit something good than to add that which is not worth saying at all….Therefore, if possible, the quintessence only! mere leading thoughts! nothing that the reader would think for himself. To use many words to communicate few thoughts is everywhere the unmistakable sign of mediocrity. To gather much thought into few words stamps the man of genius.

Truth is most beautiful undraped; and the impression it makes is deep in proportion as its expression has been simple. This is so, partly because it then takes unobstructed possession of the hearer’s whole soul, and leaves him no by-thought to distract him; partly, also, because he feels that here he is not being corrupted or cheated by the arts of rhetoric, but that all the effect of what is said comes from the thing itself. For instance, what declamation on the vanity of human existence could ever be more telling than the words of Job? Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay.

For the same reason Goethe’s naïve poetry is incomparably greater than Schiller’s rhetoric. It is this, again, that makes many popular songs so affecting. As in architecture an excess of decoration is to be avoided, so in the art of literature a writer must guard against all rhetorical finery, all useless amplification, and all superfluity of expression in general; in a word, he must strive after chastity of style. Every word that can be spared is hurtful if it remains. The law of simplicity and naïveté holds good of all fine art; for it is quite possible to be at once simple and sublime.

True brevity of expression consists in everywhere saying only what is worth saying, and in avoiding tedious detail about things which everyone can supply for himself. This involves correct discrimination between what it necessary and what is superfluous. A writer should never be brief at the expense of being clear, to say nothing of being grammatical. It shows lamentable want of judgment to weaken the expression of a thought, or to stunt the meaning of a period for the sake of using a few words less.

It is wealth and weight of thought, and nothing else, that gives brevity to style, and makes it concise and pregnant.

Let me here mention an error of style, very prevalent nowadays, and, in the degraded state of literature and the neglect of ancient languages, always on the increase; I mean subjectivity . A writer commits this error when he thinks it enough if he himself knows what he means and wants to say, and takes no thought for the reader, who is left to get at the bottom of it as best he can. This is as though the author were holding a monologue; whereas, it ought to be a dialogue; and a dialogue, too, in which he must express himself all the more clearly inasmuch as he cannot hear the questions of his interlocutor.

Style should for this very reason never be subjective, but objective ; and it will not be objective unless the words are so set down that they directly force the reader to think precisely the same thing as the author thought when he wrote them. Nor will this result be obtained unless the author has always been careful to remember that thought so far follows the law of gravity that it travels from head to paper much more easily than from paper to head; so that he must assist the latter passage by every means in his power.

He who writes carelessly confesses thereby at the very outset that he does not attach much importance to his own thoughts. For it is only where a man is convinced of the truth and importance of his thoughts, that he feels the enthusiasm necessary for an untiring and assiduous effort to find the clearest, finest, and strongest expression for them,— just as for sacred relics or priceless works of art there are provided silvern or golden receptacles. It was this feeling that led ancient authors, whose thoughts, expressed in their own words, have lived thousands of years, and therefore bear the honored title of classics , always to write with care. Plato, indeed, is said to have written the introduction to his Republic seven times over in different ways.

As neglect of dress betrays want of respect for the company a man meets, so a hasty, careless, bad style shows an outrageous lack of regard for the reader, who then rightly punishes it by refusing to read the book. It is especially amusing to see reviewers criticising the works of others in their own most careless style — the style of a hireling. It is as though a judge were to come into court in dressing-gown and slippers! If I see a man badly and dirtily dressed, I feel some hesitation, at first, in entering into conversation with him: and when, on taking up a book, I am struck at once by the negligence of its style, I put it away.

Good writing should be governed by the rule that a man can think only one thing clearly at a time; and, therefore, that he should not be expected to think two or even more things in one and the same moment. But this is what is done when a writer breaks up his principal sentence into little pieces, for the purpose of pushing into the gaps thus made two or three other thoughts by way of parenthesis; thereby unnecessarily and wantonly confusing the reader.

Good writing should be governed by the rule that a man can think only one thing clearly at a time; and, therefore, that he should not be expected to think two or even more things in one and the same moment. But this is what is done when a writer breaks up his principal sentence into little pieces, for the purpose of pushing into the gaps thus made two or three other thoughts by way of parenthesis; thereby unnecessarily and wantonly confusing the reader….In those long sentences rich in involved parenthesis, like a box of boxes one within another, and padded out like roast geese stuffed with apples, it is really the memory that is chiefly taxed; while it is the understanding and the judgment which should be called into play, instead of having their activity thereby actually hindered and weakened.

Few write in the way in which an architect builds; who, before he sets to work, sketches out his plan, and thinks it over down to its smallest details. Nay, most people write only as though they were playing dominoes; and, as in this game, the pieces are arranged half by design, half by chance, so it is with the sequence and connection of their sentences. They only have an idea of what the general shape of their work will be, and of the aim they set before themselves.

Life now-a-days goes at a gallop; and the way in which this affects literature is to make it extremely superficial and slovenly.

Amusingly, that is how Schopenhauer ends his essay on Style, from which the latter bulk of the quotes above are drawn (a copy of the whole may be found at There is nothing new under the sun!

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The Editor Who Writes Like an Angel

Yale teacher gracefully edited American Scholar in early 2000s

Extraordinary purity of literary illumination

A lesson from the Hmong

Today we happened to pick up a copy of the American Scholar from Spring 2001, when we were lucky enough to subscribe to this wonderful publication of the Phi Beta Kappa society when it was edited by Anne Fadiman. She is the daughter of Clifton Fadiman, the renowned editor (of book reviews at the New Yorker, and eventually chief editor at Simon and Schuster) and radio and Television personality, born in Brooklyn and of Russian heritage (“When you reread a classic, you do not see more in the book than you did before, you see more in you than there was before”). He is best known around our house for his Anecdotes volume, though many of them seem less memorable than they should be.

Paging through the leaves of the American Scholar we saw once again in its essays and reporting the ineffable but irreplaceable quality which marked the years it was edited by his daughter, before she was unfortunately ejected by the bean counting publishers for declining to pay her authors less.

A little slice of Heaven

Exactly what this quality is is hard to pin down, but it is as if the pages are illuminated, graced by a certain literary ethic, a spirit of honesty and gentle specificity of detail that permeates every subject by every author with a kind of other worldly spirit of truth and modesty that one doesn’t really expect to meet this side of Heaven. Heaven as a place, that is, where all ambition is moot and all striving and self presentation is set aside, and where all of us will confide the truths of our lives without fear of judgment or favor of any kind, as we share the joy of continued existence finally, blessedly free from the need to impress or conceal or defend.

If that little riff seems unmoored from practical reality so be it, for again, there is something transcendent about the Fadiman spirit which fills the pages that she edited, and makes one treasure her editions as a set of classic writing which will never be surpassed as essay and reporting.

And it does seem to have something to do with leaving behind the urge to tell the reader how to react to the news being conveyed, or to knowingly prompt him or her to respond with excitement or outrage or amazement or whatever reaction the text of a sensational front page story of the New York Post might aim at, to quote the opposite extreme on the editing spectrum.

Of course this approach is one which leads the reader to trust the writer so completely that often the response aroused is deeper and more strongly felt than the petty sensations aroused by tabloid shouts, because one does not have to guard against artificiality and having one’s buttons pressed.

What it is like to be very, very fat

Spencer Nadler’s description of what it is like to be extraordinarily obese in Fat in the issue I picked up is an example where one realizes the horrid consequences of that condition more vividly than any lurid depiction could muster:

“Patti encountered little discrimination in the office, but lunches were difficult. She worried about fitting into a colleague’s car en route to a restaurant. Once there, she prayed for a table and chairs because she couldn’t wedge into a booth. Maitre d’s and waittresses ignored her. Does anyone her size really want more food? And sitting so close to others, she worried that the smell of her belly ooze would be detectable. Beneath her massive bulge of abdominal fat, ulcerated skin rashes wept until the itch was unbearable and the smell was rank. None of her medications brought relief. At home, she could raise the bulge of her abdomen and sit in the sway of a fan until the forced air dried her wounds, but at work there was no respite.”

Of course, much of the joy of such good editing is the fact that the grammar and syntax is fully worked out, rather than cut short to add punch and speed and other spurious time saving qualities which interfere with clarity rather than improve access. But the real touchstone of her editing seems to be honesty, an effort to raise the clarity of communication to the utmost level by applying an unprecedented purity of motive, where the self abnegation of the writer is an ethical achievement, and where the confidence of the reader in what he or she is being told is maximized by a feeling of no holds barred intimacy with the writer, as if the writer and the reader were family, with acceptance and relevance as permanent and unquestioned as brother talking to sister. They are equals in rank and education, members of the same club whose ruling principle is truth.

The New Yorker may carry off the same trick weekly, in many ways, but somehow the Fadiman approach rises to an even higher level. That this is generally appreciated became clear when Fadiman got fired in 2004, when finding her a new job became a cause celebre among the literary cognoscenti. She wound up at Yale, teaching writing, where she is casually referred to in the Yale Herald as “divine”.

Medical technology and the human spirit

A chunk of her own writing is probably the best guide to its quality. See what you think. Here is a sample from her remarkable book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, a tale of a Laotian child with epilepsy in California contrasting the Laotian way of thinking about body and spirit with the modern medical approach.

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down explores the clash between a small county hospital in California and a refugee family from Laos over the care of Lia Lee, a Hmong child diagnosed with severe epilepsy. Lia’s parents and her doctors both wanted what was best for Lia, but the lack of understanding between them led to tragedy. Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Current Interest, and the Salon Book Award, Anne Fadiman’s compassionate account of this cultural impasse is literary journalism at its finest.


If Lia Lee had been born in the highlands of northwest Laos, where her parents and twelve of her brothers and sisters were born, her mother would have squatted on the floor of the house that her father had built from ax-hewn planks thatched with bamboo and grass. The floor was dirt, but it was clean. Her mother, Foua, sprinkled it regularly with water to keep the dust down and swept it every morning and evening with a broom she had made of grass and bark. She used a bamboo dustpan, which she had also made herself, to collect the feces of the children who were too young to defecate outside, and emptied its contents in the forest. Even if Foua had been a less fastidious housekeeper, her newborn babies wouldn’t have gotten dirty, since she never let them actually touch the floor. She remains proud to this day that she delivered each of them into her own hands, reaching between her legs to ease out the head and then letting the rest of the body slip out onto her bent forearms. No birth attendant was present, though if her throat became dry during labor, her husband, Nao Kao, was permitted to bring her a cup of hot water, as long as he averted his eyes from her body. Because Foua believed that moaning or screaming would thwart the birth, she labored in silence, with the exception of an occasional prayer to her ancestors. She was so quiet that although most of her babies were born at night, her older children slept undisturbed on a communal bamboo pallet a few feet away, and woke only when they heard the cry of their new brother or sister. After each birth, Nao Kao cut the umbilical cord with heated scissors and tied it with string. Then Foua washed the baby with water she had carried from the stream, usually in the early phases of labor, in a wooden and bamboo pack-barrel strapped to her back.

Foua conceived, carried, and bore all her children with ease, but had there been any problems, she would have had recourse to a variety of remedies that were commonly used by the Hmong, the hilltribe to which her family belonged. If a Hmong couple failed to produce children, they could call in a txiv neeb, a shaman who was believed to have the ability to enter a trance, summon a posse of helpful familiars, ride a winged horse over the twelve mountains between the earth and the sky, cross an ocean inhabited by dragons, and (starting with bribes of food and money and, if necessary, working up to a necromantic sword) negotiate for his patients’ health with the spirits who lived in the realm of the unseen. A txiv neeb might be able to cure infertility by asking the couple to sacrifice a dog, a cat, a chicken, or a sheep. After the animal’s throat was cut, the txiv neeb would string a rope bridge from the doorpost to the marriage bed, over which the soul of the couple’s future baby, which had been detained by a malevolent spirit called a dab, could now freely travel to earth. One could also take certain precautions to avoid becoming infertile in the first place. For example, no Hmong woman of childbearing age would ever think of setting foot inside a cave, because a particularly unpleasant kind of dab sometimes lived there who liked to eat flesh and drink blood and could make his victim sterile by having sexual intercourse with her.

Once a Hmong woman became pregnant, she could ensure the health of her child by paying close attention to her food cravings. If she craved ginger and failed to eat it, her child would be born with an extra finger or toe. If she craved chicken flesh and did not eat it, her child would have a blemish near its ear. If she craved eggs and did not eat them, her child would have a lumpy head. When a Hmong woman felt the first pangs of labor, she would hurry home from the rice or opium fields, where she had continued to work throughout her pregnancy. It was important to reach her own house, or at least the house of one of her husband’s cousins, because if she gave birth anywhere else a dab might injure her. A long or arduous labor could be eased by drinking the water in which a key had been boiled, in order to unlock the birth canal; by having her family array bowls of sacred water around the room and chant prayers over them; or, if the difficulty stemmed from having treated an elder member of the family with insufficient respect, by washing the offended relative’s fingertips and apologizing like crazy until the relative finally said, “I forgive you.”

Soon after the birth, while the mother and baby were still lying together next to the fire pit, the father dug a hole at least two feet deep in the dirt floor and buried the placenta. If it was a girl, her placenta was buried under her parents’ bed; if it was a boy, his placenta was buried in a place of greater honor, near the base of the house’s central wooden pillar, in which a male spirit, a domestic guardian who held up the roof of the house and watched over its residents, made his home. The placenta was always buried with the smooth side, the side that had faced the fetus inside the womb, turned upward, since if it was upside down, the baby might vomit after nursing. If the baby’s face erupted in spots, that meant the placenta was being attacked by ants underground, and boiling water was poured into the burial hole as an insecticide. In the Hmong language, the word for placenta means “jacket.” It is considered one’s first and finest garment. When a Hmong dies, his or her soul must travel back from place to place, retracing the path of its life geography, until it reaches the burial place of its placental jacket, and puts it on. Only after the soul is properly dressed in the clothing in which it was born can it continue its dangerous journey, past murderous dabs and giant poisonous caterpillars, around man-eating rocks and impassable oceans, to the place beyond the sky where it is reunited with its ancestors and from which it will someday be sent to be reborn as the soul of a new baby. If the soul cannot find its jacket, it is condemned to an eternity of wandering, naked and alone.

Because the Lees are among the 150,000 Hmong who have fled Laos since their country fell to communist forces in 1975, they do not know if their house is still standing, or if the five male and seven female placentas that Nao Kao buried under the dirt floor are still there. They believe that half of the placentas have already been put to their final use, since four of their sons and two of their daughters died of various causes before the Lees came to the United States. The Lees believe that someday the souls of most of the rest of their family will have a long way to travel, since they will have to retrace their steps from Merced, California, where the family has spent fifteen of its seventeen years in this country; to Portland, Oregon, where they lived before Merced; to Honolulu, Hawaii, where their airplane from Thailand first landed; to two Thai refugee camps; and finally back to their home village in Laos.

The Lees’ thirteenth child, Mai, was born in a refugee camp in Thailand. Her placenta was buried under their hut. Their fourteenth child, Lia, was born in the Merced Community Medical Center, a modern public hospital that serves an agricultural county in California’s Central Valley, where many Hmong refugees have resettled. Lia’s placenta was incinerated. Some Hmong women have asked the doctors at MCMC, as the hospital is commonly called, if they could take their babies’ placentas home. Several of the doctors have acquiesced, packing the placentas in plastic bags or take-out containers from the hospital cafeteria; most have refused, in some cases because they have assumed that the women planned to eat the placentas, and have found that idea disgusting, and in some cases because they have feared the possible spread of hepatitis B, which is carried by at least fifteen percent of the Hmong refugees in the United States. Foua never thought to ask, since she speaks no English, and when she delivered Lia, no one present spoke Hmong. In any case, the Lees’ apartment had a wooden floor covered with wall-to-wall carpeting, so burying the placenta would have been a difficult proposition.

When Lia was born, at 7:09 p.m. on July 19, 1982, Foua was lying on her back on a steel table, her body covered with sterile drapes, her genital area painted with a brown Betadine solution, with a high-wattage lamp trained on her perineum. There were no family members in the room. Gary Thueson, a family practice resident who did the delivery, noted in the chart that in order to speed the labor, he had artificially ruptured Foua’s amniotic sac by poking it with a foot-long plastic “amni-hook” that no anesthesia was used; that no episiotomy, an incision to enlarge the vaginal opening, was necessary; and that after the birth, Foua received a standard intravenous dose of Pitocin to constrict her uterus. Dr. Thueson also noted that Lia was a “healthy infant” whose weight, 8 pounds 7 ounces, and condition were “appropriate for gestational age” (an estimate he based on observation alone, since Foua had received no prenatal care, was not certain how long she had been pregnant, and could not have told Dr. Thueson even if she had known). Foua thinks that Lia was her largest baby, although she isn’t sure, since none of her thirteen elder children were weighed at birth. Lia’s Apgar scores, an assessment of a newborn infant’s heart rate, respiration, muscle tone, color, and reflexes, were good: one minute after her birth she scored 7 on a scale of 10, and four minutes later she scored 9. When she was six minutes old, her color was described as “pink” and her activity as “crying.” Lia was shown briefly to her mother. Then she was placed in a steel and Plexiglas warmer, where a nurse fastened a plastic identification band around her wrist and recorded her footprints by inking the soles of her feet with a stamp pad and pressing them against a Newborn Identification form. After that, Lia was removed to the central nursery, where she received an injection of Vitamin K in one of her thighs to prevent hemorrhagic disease; was treated with two drops of silver nitrate solution in each eye, to prevent an infection from gonococcal bacteria; and was bathed with Safeguard soap.

Foua’s own date of birth was recorded on Lia’s Delivery Room Record as October 6, 1944. In fact, she has no idea when she was born, and on various other occasions during the next several years she would inform MCMC personnel, through English-speaking relatives such as the nephew’s wife who had helped her check into the hospital for Lia’s delivery, that her date of birth was October 6, 1942, or, more frequently, October 6, 1926. Not a single admitting clerk ever appears to have questioned the latter date, though it would imply that Foua gave birth to Lia at the age of 55. Foua is quite sure, however, that October is correct, since she was told by her parents that she was born during the season in which the opium fields are weeded for the second time and the harvested rice stalks are stacked. She invented the precise day of the month, like the year, in order to satisfy the many Americans who have evinced an abhorrence of unfilled blanks on the innumerable forms the Lees have encountered since their admission to the United States in 1980. Most Hmong refugees are familiar with this American trait and have accommodated it in the same way. Nao Kao Lee has a first cousin who told the immigration officials that all nine of his children were born on July 15, in nine consecutive years, and this information was duly recorded on their resident alien documents.

When Lia Lee was released from MCMC, at the age of three days, her mother was asked to sign a piece of paper that read:
I CERTIFY that during the discharge procedure I received my baby, examined it and determined that it was mine. I checked the Ident-A-Band® parts sealed on the baby and on me and found that they were identically numbered 5043 and contained correct identifying information.

Since Foua cannot read and has never learned to recognize Arabic numerals, it is unlikely that she followed these instructions. However, she had been asked for her signature so often in the United States that she had mastered the capital forms of the seven different letters contained in her name, Foua Yang. (The Yangs and the Lees are among the largest of the Hmong clans; the other major ones are the Chas, the Chengs, the Hangs, the Hers, the Kues, the Los, the Mouas, the Thaos, the Vues, the Xiongs, and the Vangs. In Laos, the clan name came first, but most Hmong refugees in the United States use it as a surname. Children belong to their father’s clan; women traditionally retain their clan name after marriage. Marrying a member of one’s own clan is strictly taboo.) Foua’s signature is no less legible than the signatures of most of MCMC’s resident physicians-in-training, which, particularly if they are written toward the end of a twenty-four-hour shift, tend to resemble EEGs. However, it has the unique distinction of looking different each time it appears on a hospital document. On this occasion, FOUAYANG was written as a single word. One A is canted to the left and one to the right, the Y looks like an X, and the legs of the N undulate gracefully, like a child’s drawing of a wave.

It is a credit to Foua’s general equanimity, as well as her characteristic desire not to think ill of anyone, that although she found Lia’s birth a peculiar experience, she has few criticisms of the way the hospital handled it. Her doubts about MCMC in particular, and American medicine in general, would not begin to gather force until Lia had visited the hospital many times. On this occasion, she thought the doctor was gentle and kind, she was impressed that so many people were there to help her, and although she felt that the nurses who bathed Lia with Safeguard did not get her quite as clean as she had gotten her newborns with Laotian stream water, her only major complaint concerned the hospital food. She was surprised to be offered ice water after the birth, since many Hmong believe that cold foods during the postpartum period make the blood congeal in the womb instead of cleansing it by flowing freely, and that a woman who does not observe the taboo against them will develop itchy skin or diarrhea in her old age. Foua did accept several cups of what she remembers as hot black water. This was probably either tea or beef broth; Foua is sure it wasn’t coffee, which she had seen before and would have recognized. The black water was the only MCMC-provided food that passed her lips during her stay in the maternity ward. Each day, Nao Kao cooked and brought her the diet that is strictly prescribed for Hmong women during the thirty days following childbirth: steamed rice, and chicken boiled in water with five special postpartum herbs (which the Lees had grown for this purpose on the edge of the parking lot behind their apartment building). This diet was familiar to the doctors on the Labor and Delivery floor at MCMC, whose assessments of it were fairly accurate gauges of their general opinion of the Hmong. One obstetrician, Raquel Arias, recalled, “The Hmong men carried these nice little silver cans to the hospital that always had some kind of chicken soup in them and always smelled great.” Another obstetrician, Robert Small, said, “They always brought some horrible stinking concoction that smelled like the chicken had been dead for a week.” Foua never shared her meals with anyone, because there is a postpartum taboo against spilling grains of rice accidentally into the chicken pot. If that occurs, the newborn is likely to break out across the nose and cheeks with little white pimples whose name in the Hmong language is the same as the word for “rice.”

Some Hmong parents in Merced have given their children American names. In addition to many standard ones, these have included Kennedy, Nixon, Pajama, Guitar, Main (after Merced’s Main Street), and, until a nurse counseled otherwise, Baby Boy, which one mother, seeing it written on her son’s hospital papers, assumed was the name the doctor had already chosen for him. The Lees chose to give their daughter a Hmong name, Lia. Her name was officially conferred in a ceremony called a hu plig, or soul-calling, which in Laos always took place on the third day after birth. Until this ceremony was performed, a baby was not considered to be fully a member of the human race, and if it died during its first three days it was not accorded the customary funerary rites. (This may have been a cultural adaptation to the fifty-percent infant mortality rate, a way of steeling Hmong mothers against the frequent loss of their babies during or shortly after childbirth by encouraging them to postpone their attachment.) In the United States, the naming is usually celebrated at a later time, since on its third day a baby may still be hospitalized, especially if the birth was complicated. It took the Lee family about a month to save enough money from their welfare checks, and from gifts from their relatives’ welfare checks, to finance a soul-calling party for Lia.

Although the Hmong believe that illness can be caused by a variety of sources—including eating the wrong food, drinking contaminated water, being affected by a change in the weather, failing to ejaculate completely during sexual intercourse, neglecting to make offerings to one’s ancestors, being punished for one’s ancestors’ transgressions, being cursed, being hit by a whirlwind, having a stone implanted in one’s body by an evil spirit master, having one’s blood sucked by a dab, bumping into a dab who lives in a tree or a stream, digging a well in a dab’s living place, catching sight of a dwarf female dab who eats earthworms, having a dab sit on one’s chest while one is sleeping, doing one’s laundry in a lake inhabited by a dragon, pointing one’s finger at the full moon, touching a newborn mouse, killing a large snake, urinating on a rock that looks like a tiger, urinating on or kicking a benevolent house spirit, or having bird droppings fall on one’s head—by far the most common cause of illness is soul loss. Although the Hmong do not agree on just how many souls people have (estimates range from one to thirty-two; the Lees believe there is only one), there is a general consensus that whatever the number, it is the life-soul, whose presence is necessary for health and happiness, that tends to get lost. A life-soul can become separated from its body through anger, grief, fear, curiosity, or wanderlust. The life-souls of newborn babies are especially prone to disappearance, since they are so small, so vulnerable, and so precariously poised between the realm of the unseen, from which they have just traveled, and the realm of the living. Babies’ souls may wander away, drawn by bright colors, sweet sounds, or fragrant smells; they may leave if a baby is sad, lonely, or insufficiently loved by its parents; they may be frightened away by a sudden loud noise; or they may be stolen by a dab. Some Hmong are careful never to say aloud that a baby is pretty, lest a dab be listening. Hmong babies are often dressed in intricately embroidered hats (Foua made several for Lia) which, when seen from a heavenly perspective, might fool a predatory dab into thinking the child was a flower. They spend much of their time swaddled against their mothers’ backs in cloth carriers called nyias (Foua made Lia several of these too) that have been embroidered with soul-retaining motifs, such as the pigpen, which symbolizes enclosure. They may wear silver necklaces fastened with soul-shackling locks. When babies or small children go on an outing, their parents may call loudly to their souls before the family returns home, to make sure that none remain behind. Hmong families in Merced can sometimes be heard doing this when they leave local parks after a picnic. None of these ploys can work, however, unless the soul-calling ritual has already been properly observed.
Lia’s hu plig took place in the living room of her family’s apartment. There were so many guests, all of them Hmong and most of them members of the Lee and Yang clans, that it was nearly impossible to turn around. Foua and Nao Kao were proud that so many people had come to celebrate their good fortune in being favored with such a healthy and beautiful daughter. That morning Nao Kao had sacrificed a pig in order to invite the soul of one of Lia’s ancestors, which was probably hungry and would appreciate an offering of food, to be reborn in her body. After the guests arrived, an elder of the Yang clan stood at the apartment’s open front door, facing East 12th Street, with two live chickens in a bag on the floor next to him, and chanted a greeting to Lia’s soul. The two chickens were then killed, plucked, eviscerated, partially boiled, retrieved from the cooking pot, and examined to see if their skulls were translucent and their tongues curled upward, both signs that Lia’s new soul was pleased to take up residence in her body and that her name was a good one. (If the signs had been inauspicious, the soul-caller would have recommended that another name be chosen.) After the reading of the auguries, the chickens were put back in the cooking pot. The guests would later eat them and the pig for dinner. Before the meal, the soul-caller brushed Lia’s hands with a bundle of short white strings and said, “I am sweeping away the ways of sickness.” Then Lia’s parents and all of the elders present in the room each tied a string around one of Lia’s wrists in order to bind her soul securely to her body. Foua and Nao Kao promised to love her; the elders blessed her and prayed that she would have a long life and that she would never become sick.

THE SPIRIT CATCHES YOU AND YOU FALL DOWN Copyright © 1997 by Anne Fadiman

Two extremes, perhaps, the two cultures depicted here. And her tale of Hmong superstitions and practices may contain some exaggerations, in fact, does, according to a Hmong reviewer on the Internet. But the book surely contains massive truths about the American medical-industrial system which have yet to penetrate the minds of its participants fifteen years later, judging from the excessive dominance of technology in their approach.

Once Anne Fadiman was gone, we never bothered to renew our subscription to the American Scholar.

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New Yorker excels at intelligent, pithy copy

Jul 2 issue reaches peak with McPhee, Finnegan, Lahr, Denby

Is there a new editor responsible?

Have New Yorker writers found new inspiration with the arrival of some new editor, or is there some other explanation for its current burst of ideal not-very-long form magazine writing?

This week’s issue (Jul 2, found in the mail Jun 26 Mon) is exemplary in many of its pages, with the unusual exception of a Shout and Murmurs which is gratuitously rude about our sterling neighbor to the North.

Steve Coll kicks off Talk of the Town with Comment on A Nation of Immigrants, which deftly exposes the disloyalty of Marco Rubio to the memory of his Cuban grandfather, whose very own illegal immigration into the US ina flight to Miami without a valid visa was quietly allowed by the grace of some lenient immigration officials.

Radical nativism is turning America’s foundational narrative into a wedge, and Republican leaders are going along, unwilling to challenge their base’s dislocated anger. They are undermining national cohesion in ways large and small. Almost all immigrantsuccess stories involve serendipity and empathy from those who arrived earlier. Sometimes the stories turn on the restraint of local police officers. That seems to be the import of Pedro Victor Garcia’s experience, of only his grandson—and his grandson’s party—could discern it.

McPhee on the writing life

A few pages on we have the amusing and well turned essay on The Writing Life by the seasoned John McPhee, famous and eventually derided by some for the leisurely length of his long form nonfiction on geological topics. McPhee describes his life under three editors, William Shawn and Robert Gottlieb at the New Yorker, and Roger Straus his friend and publisher.

The most memorable quote comes from Shawn, when McPhee expressed astonishment for Shawn’s ability to spend the time on editing his piece given that there was so much else for Shawn to attend to. Shawn simply replied, “It takes as long as it takes.”

Then there is the matter of titles, written by the writer and too often lopped off by editors at other magazines:

Editors of every ilk seem to think that titles are their prerogative—that they can buy a piece, cut the title off the top, and lay on one of their own. When I was young, this turned my skin pink and caused horripilation. I should add that I encountered such editors almost wholly at magazines other than The New Yorker—Vogue, Holiday, the Saturday Evening Post. The title is an integral part of a piece of writing, and one of the most important parts, and ought not to be written by anyone but the writer of what follows the title. Editors’ habit of replacing an author’s title with one of their own is like a photo of tourist’s head on the cardboard body of Mao Zedong. But the title missing on the Bill Bradley piece ((his first for the New Yorker, this was a 17,000 word profile of Bradley who was then a student at Princeton)) was my oversight. I put no title on the manuscript. Shawn did. He hunted around in the text and found six words spoken by the subject, and when I saw the first New Yorker proof the piece was called “A sense of Where You Are” I have been grateful for that for nearly fifty years.

In a small but rather dismaying irony the subhead of the piece is The name of the subject shall not be the title, yet its title is precisely the names of its subjects. The rule was a principle of Shawn’s, even though as it happens he was once persuaded to allow McPhee to title his second piece (on oranges) for the magazine “Oranges”, even after he had crossed out “Oranges” as the original title and substituted a line from Andrew Marvell (“Golden lamps in a Green Night”).

Yet this present piece is flatfootedly titled Editors and Publisher, disregarding Shawn’s rule entirely for some unfathomable reason possibly to do with an attempt at inside humor, but one which would make George Booth’s dog even more crosseyed, to borrow a phrase from McPhee.

The drug war in Mexico

Following that we have a fine Letter from Mexico, The Kingpins, The fight for Guadalajara. This tour de force by William Finnegan manages to give a clear picture of how Mexico is tormented by its drug gangs despite the many layers of secrecy and speculation curtaining that reality. There have been 50,000 deaths so far in the battles of rival gangs for territory which now center on Guadalajara, and in busts by the Mexican army and often corrupted police, who may even return the drugs quietly later.

When Mexicans discuss the news, they talk often about pantellas—screens, illusions, behind which are more screens, all created to obscure the facts…I can’t count the number of times I have been asked about a news story and been told, “Pantella.” This is a problem for journalism. You fish for facts and instead pull up boatloads of speculation, some of it well informed, much of it trailing tangled agendas. You end up reporting not what happened so much as what people think or imagine or say what happened. Then there is the entirely justified fear of speaking to the press, particularly to foreign journalistrs. I have had to offer anonymity, pseudonyms, and extraordinary assurances to many sources for this account. The reprisals that people are trying to avoid would come not only from crime groups but, in many cases, from factions within the Mexican government.

Finnegan starts off his piece with a cruel description of presidential candidate, now elect, Enrique Pena Nieto at the Guadalajara International Book Fair, in a Sarah Palin moment, awkwardly trying to name three books that had influenced him.

He mentioned the Bible, or, at least, “some parts” (unspecified), and “The Eagle’s Throne”, a Carlos Fuentes novel (though he named the historian Enrqiue Krauze as the author). And, for a few excruciatin minutes, that was all he could come up with. The crowd laughed wickedly. Pena Nieto’s wife, a former soap-opera star, squirmed in the front row. His teen-age daughter didn’t help matters when, in a tweet, she scorned “all of the idiots who form part of the proletariat and only criticise those they envy.”

Now that Pena Nieto and the PRI have regained the power they lost in 2001 after seven decades of rule, Finnegan’s conclusion is especially relevant. It predicts that the violence may now abate, though the industry will continue to flourish:

He changed the subject, to politics. “If the PRI wins, everything’s going to change,” he said. “Everybody will start getting paid again. They know how to do it.” He pantomimed a payment, counting out cash to a circle of people. “The media, too,” he said, mock paying me.
It was true: the PRI, when in power, paid some journalists extravagantly, and supported mmany newspapers and other media in return for coverage that suited its purposes.
“There will be just one big group”, Rodriguez said. “Maybe it will be El Chapo. But there will be peace.”

The piece is not only a cliffhanger but exhibits the extraordinary level of articulate compression that seems to have been exclusively patented by the New Yorker.

Critics Lahr and Denby excel

John Lahr’s review of Love’s Labor Lost in the Delacorte Theater is another distinguished piece, displaying an imaginative and informed response to the performance and the work on a level rarely seen in other periodicals these days, yet written and edited with the casual ease which remains a hallmark of the magazine. In fact we dare say the piece is more enjoyable and rewarding than the performance itself, judging from an early preview we saw at the Delacorte, where the famous soliloquy on the Ages of Man was rushed and limp beyond repair.

(Lily) Rabe’s charisma is helped by her graceful, athletic body and her husky voice, but what really shines across the footlights is her authenticity. At the finale, swept up in the high spirits of the wedding hoedown, Rabe’s Rosalind kisses Orlando and lets her lips linger on his as they start to sashay around the stage in a kind of spirited Texas two-step. Shakespeare provides a song for the elegaic moment: “Hey-ding-a-ding ding/Sweet lovers love the spring.” For me, whatever the Bard had to say about joy and passion and the fragile hope for fulfilled desire was clinched in Rabe’s gesture.

The critics of the New Yorker are noble appreciators of the works they review, and in their sense of noblesse oblige they are the other end of the spectrum from the young men and women starting out in the field who like to smash the works they are offered with vicious if clever cruelty whose real aim seems to be to make a name for the critic rather than act as a helpful guide to the uninitiated. Perhaps the finest specimen of the latter came in the Times the other day, when a British violinist was reviewed in terms which must have left his pride in shreds if he made the mistake of taking it seriously. We dealt with this in the last post. One of the marks of intelligence and worldiness in the New Yorker is its essential kindness.

David Denby’s column on The Current Cinema, That’s Amore, “To Rome With Love” is another flight of brilliant fancy, where Woody Allen’s latest inspires such an admiring description that one wonders if one will share it when one sees the film. This is explanatory writing which may be essential to read beforehand, or risk not appreciating the work as one should.

The idea leaps into nutty showmanship, which is both hilarious and possibly a metaphor for Allen’s own life: exploiting his own confinements (Brooklyn obscurity, shrimpy size, neurotic fearfulness, etc.), he launched a tremendous career….
Allen is redoing as surrealist farce his old distaste for the invasive idiocy of fandom (which he skewered in Stardust Memories) and his amazement at the universal longing for an instant in the media lights (“Celbrity”)….
Allen is suggesting that narcissists are so powerfully appealing because you feel blessed when, even momentarily, the beam of their self-love turns towards you. In “To Rome With Love”, no one is destroyed by hooking up with the wrong person. Some lives are altered; some couple split up, others go back to their original partners and embrace their old existence again. The only crime imaginable in this benevolent movie is the unwillingness to take a chance.

Not only does the review expertly delineate the film with kind appreciation but it also somehow conveys its weaknesses which may suggest that you don’t want to see it, which is a very neat trick.

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Critic Lambasts Violinist Charles Siem in Excessive Times Review

Who is Zachary Wolfe to flame a violinist so?

Even if true, the language seems dyspeptic

Is Wolfe too young/hot to be reasonable?

This shattering review of the unfortunate British violinist was a shock to all sensitive Times readers today. Let’s hope that Siem dosn’t take it to heart, or his career in New York City will be over. (Actually, Siem is well equipped to slide past it, see below).

It raises the question, can such a lambasting ever be truly merited, given the subjective nature of anyone’s response to music, even a seasoned critic’s? And isn’t it a fact that every musical experience is variable according to the time it occurs, since all critics are human and their constitution – energy, mood, concentration, and so on – imposes change on their perceptions of any work from one day to another, however objective they try to be?

Also, surely by definition nothing by a professional with a reputation can be as bad as Wolfe implies, can it?

We think that Wolfe is lucky that the Times didn’t run a comment thread on his masterwork. We also wonder, how old is he?

But the review is very well written, so it deserves a place here for all to ponder.

June 26, 2012
Impeccably Dressed, With His Violin at the Ready
The British violinist Charlie Siem, 25, has courted attention far beyond the standard classical music circles.

He has played for Lady Gaga. He has appeared in burnished black-and-white advertisements for Dunhill, the luxury goods company. In January he was seated next to the pop star Joe Jonas at the Calvin Klein men’s show in Milan.

His face — a handsome mixture of boyish softness and strong jaw — makes Mr. Siem a natural fit for the fashion world. And his stylishly snug suits are small miracles of tailoring.

There’s nothing wrong with marketing, or with building bridges between classical music and broader culture. But a musician needs to back up his promotional prowess with skill, and at Mr. Siem’s recital on Monday at Le Poisson Rouge with the pianist Kyoung Im Kim, there was a dumbfounding gap between his retro suavity and the ineptitude of his playing.

His intonation, passagework and tone were simply ugly in two works that are stale enough when played well. The first movement of Ysaÿe’s Sonata No. 2 features flowing arpeggios that Mr. Siem labored over; in the elegiac second movement he lacked any discernible emotion at all. In the third movement, a folksy Sarabande, Mr. Siem teetered on the edge of charm but saved himself with the frigid calculation of his phrasing.

Dramatically spotlighted throughout the concert, Mr. Siem favored an equally dramatic effect: sudden drops in volume. But when he reduced his sound to a whisper in Vieuxtemps’s Concerto No. 5, it came out more like a rasp. His cadenzas had fitfulness rather than flair, and when he tried to sweeten his tone, it felt ersatz, closer to Splenda than pure cane.

Mr. Siem offered, as encores, more or less messy interpretations of three of the oldest tricks in the book: Kreisler’s “Caprice Viennois,” Heifetz’s transcription of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and Monti’s “Czardas,” the piece he played for Lady Gaga. As in the Vieuxtemps and Ysaÿe, there is not a lot of musical interest here, but there are opportunities for the kind of charismatic virtuosity that Mr. Siem lacks.

Many conservatory students in New York could have put on a more interesting and polished concert, even without a fancy suit.

Charles is Eton, Oxford and probably immune

Here’s a bit of background on Siem, who seems armor plated against such rudeness from some American hack. It’s from Wickham Boyle’s blog at

IF MUSIC IS THE FOOD OF LOVE, may Charlie Siem play on. A one-man argument that there is an instrument sexier than the saxophone, Siem has managed to bridge the classical world with the cutting edge. He has played with the London Symphony Orchestra—with whom he recently released his third recording—and he’s performed with Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend and Boy George. He’s privately serenaded the likes of Lady Gaga, Patti LaBelle and theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, and he’s the face (and body) of the British fashion house Dunhill.

Not bad for a 25-year-old whose instrument of seduction is a circa 1735 Guarneri del Gesu d’Eguille violin.

Siem, who was educated at Eton and Oxford, remembers being 3 years old and hearing his first Beethoven violin concerto on the radio. The London native begged his parents to learn to play, and he has never looked back. He rakishly describes the relationship with his violin as one with a lover: “She is an intense mistress. My life is consumed by playing the violin. It requires unending attention from me, and I so happily give it. Day in and day out, for now it is the most rewarding relationship in my life.”

Which isn’t to say Siem doesn’t dabble here and there. After meeting the fashion photographer Mario Testino, he was asked to play at a book party for supermodel Kate Moss. “I went and played Paganini’s Caprice, and as luck would have it the casting agent from Dunhill was at the party. He asked me to do the campaign and that’s it. Really, it’s random.”

Perhaps random if you look like that. Yet Siem seems unfazed by the notoriety in his native England, thanks to what he calls a “watertight mind.” Siem explains, “It’s basically the idea that you don’t let anything creep in to corrupt. The slightest little drop of water will creep in and ruin the entire temple. All it takes is the glimmer of a doubt to creep in and ruin the entire project. You seal up your mind so that you don’t let insecurities or personal issues ruin the overall well-being.”

Siem has faced criticism for his theatrical playing style, which he calls “the virtuosic side of the violin,” but it is wrought from endless practice. “I am at the beginning of my career where you develop your technique and add tools,” he says humbly. But his modesty masks a determination that would make the most ambitious pop star proud: Inside his violin case is a photograph of the eyes of a tiger, which remind him to stay the course.

“They are a metaphor for me as a performer dealing with pressure. Just see the eyes of the tiger,” he says. “Go to the edge of risk. When you feel at your most challenged is when you will do your very best. It is the challenge to overcome your biggest fears, which are also your biggest desires.”

The well educated Siem and his “watertight mind” seems unlikely to be disturbed by Wolfe’s broadside, and one begins to see what might be the problem here. If Siem is a rock star as well as a classicist and his style is “theatrical” one can imagine a purist classical critic finding his approach distasteful, and ignoring the fact that the Romantic era is not so long ago.

It may even be time for its comeback, given the increasing sterility of relationships via digital media.

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New Yorker Piece on American as Cuban Revolutionary

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The Observer sports two fine pieces

Very smart and slick – that’s the way the typical Observer piece comes off. There are two in this week edition worth noting… but Alas, they are now buried in the past and I am having trouble even recalling their topic. More soon…Darn, cannot find it among files, have to trundle to the library…dredging up back numbers from the Observer site is apparently not an option, or at least, not one which can be detected on their front page.

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John Lanchaster Writes Perfect Short Story

Expectations, story in current New Yorker, dazzles

Brilliant author is steady New Yorker contributor

Story will delight all urbans married for decades

There is nothing overtly “literary” about the delicious short story in this week’s New Yorker, a straightforward tale of a City trader worrying about whether his bonus will be a million pounds in 2007, and his wife who is more restless under his yoke than he realizes.

Sadly unless you have an iPad you will have to buy the New Yorker since it is not legible on the Web even for subscribers (the display is the excessively inconvenient fixed page display, presumably to prevent copying).

The story makes one wonder who is this fine writer, apparently a Brit who has been writing for them since 1995. He is the author of IOU: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay” and the novel “Capital” due out in June.

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How to lose friends with bad writing: Dale Carnegie updated

New edition of Dale Carnegie’s little masterpiece is rewritten

Result is appalling, as Times scribe notices

General trend of German replacing Anglo Saxon?

Simplicity and clarity is the sign of good writing, and of a good mind. But the publishers, editors and rewriters who till the publishing plains rarely climb to the top of the mountain, and gain this perspective. In every study a legion of journeymen complicate and obscure by immersing their minds and ours in detail without ever understanding the overall scheme. Better minds complete the circle by enlarging their grasp until they return to simplicity. As Einstein is said to have remarked, you don’t understand a complicated proposition until you can explain it to the chambermaid. Straightforward language and simple words indicate that the speaker knows what he or she is talking about, because familiarity with complex ideas allows their difficulties to resolve, just as coffee grounds settle at the bottom of the pot over time.

The simple truth is that truth is simple, and simplicity emerges from a complete grasp of a topic, and that clarity is not to be confused with the simple minded foolishness of ignorance. Long words do not mean greater understanding, but almost always lesser understanding. Complications and long words and sentences which will end where only knows God are marks of lack of grasp, and of the stage where the writer has not yet managed to get everything organized in his or her mind into a neat pyramid, from the top of which we can see over all.

One book that shows this principle off very well is Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends and Influence People. Its language was straightforward. Dale Carnegie expressed himself in a simple way which allowed readers to get his message and believe it, without having to decode the kind of verbiage in which so many rival best sellers on advice and self help now bury their points, as if clarity was not impressive.

Well, guess what. The classic has been rewritten with the language updated to suit modern expectations, or at least those in the crass minds of those who have perpetrated this literary crime.

Here’s the complaint by Dwight Gardner in the Times, itself a fine piece of clear writing that in itself makes the point:

October 5, 2011
Classic Advice: Please, Leave Well Enough Alone

Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” which turns 75 this year, has sold more than 30 million copies and continues to be a best seller. The book, a paean to integrity, good humor and warmth in the name of amicable capitalism, is as wholesome as a Norman Rockwell painting. It exists alongside Dr. Spock’s child-rearing guide, Strunk and White’s volume on literary style and Fannie Farmer’s cookbook as a classic expression of the American impulse toward self-improvement and reinvention. Testimonials to its effectiveness abound. It’s said that the only diploma that hangs in Warren Buffett’s office is his certificate from Dale Carnegie Training.

The book’s essential admonitions — be a good listener, admit faults quickly and emphatically, and smile more often, among them — are timeless. They need updating about as much as Hank Williams’s songs do.

Yet now comes Dale Carnegie and Associates Inc., which offers leadership and public speaking classes, with the news that it has rewritten and reissued Carnegie’s book for the laptop generation under the title “How to Win Friends and Influence People in the Digital Age,” written with Brent Cole. It’s not the only advice classic that’s been updated this fall for the era of Facebook and Google Plus. There’s a new edition of “Emily Post’s Etiquette” as well, which bears the forward-looking subtitle “Manners for a New World.”

Both books offer sensible new advice about being a polite e-mailer and navigating the pitfalls of Twitter. But while it’s hard to blame those charged with caring for the Dale Carnegie and Emily Post brands for wanting them to remain relevant, attempts to tweak favorites are fraught with peril. And “How to Win Friends and Influence People in the Digital Age” in particular is such a radical — and radically hapless — retooling of Dale Carnegie’s text that it feels almost like an act of brand suicide.

“How to Win Friends and Influence People” has undergone previous revisions. In 1981 the book was slightly condensed, and some dated and vaguely racist language was removed. But the new adaptation is necessary, its authors write, because so much of Carnegie’s advice concentrated on how to win people over face to face. Thanks to e-mail and texting, however, the authors write, “we lose a critical aspect of human interactions: nonverbal cues.” It’s hard to indicate a smile in an e-mail or an instant message unless you are willing to go the emoticon route, and then all is lost either way.

The authors look to place Carnegie’s advice in new contexts. They hold up Tiger Woods as an example of how not to behave when caught in an embarrassing situation. Andrew Sullivan, the blogger, is singled out for making a point of interacting with his readers. We’re advised to pay attention, at least on occasion, to our friends’ Facebook postings, and to take the time to reply when appropriate. Alongside this new material, a bit of Carnegie’s original advice remains more or less intact.

The problem with “How to Win Friends and Influence People in the Digital Age” is that its verbal DNA has been not merely tweaked but scrambled. Carnegie’s great virtue, beyond the simplicity of his core ideas, was his unadorned prose. “Try leaving a friendly trail of little sparks of gratitude on your daily trips,” he advised in a typical passage. “You will be surprised how they will set flames of friendship that will be rose beacons on your next visit.”

That homespun virtue has been obliterated here. This new adaptation seems to have been composed using refrigerator magnets stamped with corporate lingo: “transactional proficiency,” “tangible interface,” “relational longevity,” “continuum of opportunities,” “interpersonal futility,” and “our faith persuasion.” The devastation, in terms of Carnegie’s original charm, is nearly complete. Were Carnegie alive to read this grievous book, he would clutch his chest like Redd Foxx in “Sanford and Son,” smile wanly for a few minutes (he didn’t like to make others feel bad), then keel over into his cornflakes.

The following sentence, which appears on Page 80, is so inept that it may actually be an ancient curse and to read it more than three times aloud is to summon the cannibal undead: “Today’s biggest enemy of lasting influence is the sector of both personal and corporate musing that concerns itself with the art of creating impressions without consulting the science of need ascertainment.”

Dale Carnegie, that master of graceful temperament, would not approve of kicking a book when it was down. So let me conclude with the good news. His original book, unmolested, can still be found on bookstore shelves. Life can go on as if this new one simply did not exist.

Here is the modern rewrite:

October 4, 2011
‘How to Win Friends and Influence People in the Digital Age’
Why Carnegie’s Advice Still Matters

In 1936, Dale Carnegie made a compelling statement to his readers: “Dealing with people is probably the biggest problem you face.” This is the foundation of How to Win Friends and Influence People, and it is still true today. However, developing strategies for dealing with people is more complex.

Messaging speed is instantaneous. Communication media have multiplied. Networks have expanded beyond borders, industries, and ideologies. Yet rather than making the principles in this book obsolete, these major changes have made Carnegie’s principles more relevant than ever. They represent the foundation of every sound strategy, whether you are marketing a brand, apologizing to your spouse, or pitching to investors. And if you don’t begin with the right foundation, it is easy to send the wrong message, to offend, or to fall embarrassingly short of your objective. “Precision of communication,” insisted American writer James Thurber, “is important, more important than ever, in our era of hair-trigger balances, when a false, or misunderstood, word may create as much disaster as a sudden thoughtless act.”

Consider the era of hair-trigger balances in which we live today, more than fifty years after Thurber penned the phrase. The stakes are higher. Amid the amalgam of media, distinction is more difficult. Every word, every nonverbal cue, every silent stare is scrutinized as it has never been before. One wrong move can have far greater implications. Still, every interaction from your first good morning to your last goodnight is an opportunity to win friends and influence others in a positive way. Those who succeed daily lead quite successful lives. But this sort of success comes at a philanthropic price some aren’t willing to pay. It is not as simple as being ad-wise or savvy about social media.

“The art of communication is the language of leadership,” said the presidential speechwriter James Humes. In other words, people skills that lead to influence have as much to do with the messenger—a leader in some right—as with the medium. This book will show you how and why this is true, just as it has shown more than fifty million readers around the globe, including world leaders, media luminaries, business icons, and bestselling authors. What all come to understand is that there is no such thing as a neutral exchange. You leave someone either a little better or a little worse. The best among us leave others a little better with every nod, every inflection, every interface. This one idea embodied daily has significant results.

It will improve your relationships and expand your influence with others, yes. But it will do so because the daily exercise elicits greater character and compassion from you. Aren’t we all moved by altruism?

“You can make more friends in two months by becoming more interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get people interested in you.” Carnegie’s assertion remains relevant, albeit counterintuitive, because it reminds us the secret to progress with people is a measure of selflessness swept under the drift of the digital age.

We live in an unprecedented era of self-help and self- promotion. We watch YouTube videos like the Double Rainbow go viral in a matter of weeks and garner the sort of global attention people used to break their backs for years, even decades, to obtain. We witness allegedly leaked sex videos create overnight celebrities. We watch talking heads and political pundits tear down their competition and elevate their ratings. We are daily tempted to believe that the best publicity strategy is a mix of gimmick and parody run through the most virally proficient medium. The temptation is too much for many. But for those who understand the basics of human relations, there is a far better, far more reputable, far more sustainable way to operate.

While self-help and self-promotion are not inherently deficient pursuits, problems always arise when the stream of self-actualization is dammed within us. You are one in seven billion—your progress is not meant for you alone.

The sooner you allow this truth to shape your communication decisions, the sooner you will see that the quickest path to personal or professional growth is not in hyping yourself to others but in sharing yourself with them. No author has presented the path as clearly as Dale Carnegie. Yet perhaps even he could not have imagined how the path to meaningful collaboration would become an autobahn of lasting, lucrative influence today.

More Than Clever Communication

While the hyperfrequency of our interactions has made proficient people skills more advantageous than ever, influential people must be more than savvy communicators.

Communication is simply an outward manifestation of our thoughts, our intentions, and our conclusions about the people around us. “Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.” These internal drivers are the primary differentiator between today’s leader and today’s relational leech.

The two highest levels of influence are achieved when (1) people follow you because of what you’ve done for them and (2) people follow you because of who you are. In other words, the highest levels of influence are reached when generosity and trustworthiness surround your behavior. This is the price of great, sustainable impact, whether two or two million people are involved. Yet it is only when generosity and trust are communicated artfully and authentically that the benefits are mutual.

Because we live in an age when celebrity influence can be borrowed like credit lines and media coverage can be won by squeaky wheels, it is all the more critical that every communication opportunity matter—that every medium you use be filled with messages that build trust, convey gratitude, and add value to the recipients. The one thing that has not changed since Carnegie’s time is that there is still a clear distinction between influence that is borrowed (and is difficult to sustain) and influence that is earned (and is as steady as earth’s axis). Carnegie was the master of influence that is earned.

Consider a few of his foundational principles—don’t criticize, condemn, or complain; talk about others’ interests; if you’re wrong, admit it; let others save face. Such principles don’t make you a clever conversationalist or a resourceful raconteur. They remind you to consider others’ needs before you speak. They encourage you to address difficult subjects honestly and graciously. They prod you to become a kinder, humbler manager, spouse, colleague, salesperson, and parent. Ultimately, they challenge you to gain influence in others’ lives not through showmanship or manipulation but through a genuine habit of expressing greater respect, empathy, and grace.

Your reward? Rich, enduring friendships. Trustworthy transactions. Compelling leadership. And amid today’s mass of me-isms, a very distinguishing trademark.

The original book has been called the bestselling self-help book of all time. From a modern standpoint this is a misnomer. “Self-help” was not a phrase Carnegie used. It was the moniker assigned to the genre created by the blockbuster success of How to Win Friends. The irony is that Carnegie would not endorse all of today’s self-help advice. He extolled action that sprang from genuine interest in others. He taught principles that flowed from an underlying delight in helping others succeed. Were the book recategorized, How to Win Friends would be more appropriately deemed the bestselling soul-help book in the world. For it is the soulish underpinning of the Golden Rule that Carnegie extracted so well. The principles herein are more than self-help or self- promotion handles. They are soulful strategies for lasting, lucrative progress in your conversations, your collaborations, your company. The implications are significant.

By applying the principles you will not only become a more compelling person with more influence in others’ lives; you will fulfill a philanthropic purpose every day. Imagine this effect compounded over the dozens of daily interactions the digital age affords you. Imagine the effect if dozens of people throughout an organization followed suit. Winning friends and influencing people today is no small matter. On the continuum of opportunities, it is your greatest and most constant occasion to make sustainable progress with others. And what success does not begin with relationships?

From ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’ by Dale Carnegie & Associates. Copyright © 2011 by Donna Dale Carnegie. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc., NY.

The absurdity of substituting this porridge for Carnegie’s steak tartare is self evident. But this kind of braying by literary donkeys has taken over the world, as any visit to Barnes and Noble will prove. Thank God for BookSpan, where intelligence still reigns.

But then, Americans have always trended toward German roots rather than Anglo Saxon in public discourse. We like to change nouns into verbs, and when it comes to impressive words, the longer the better. Only good writers remember that truth is clear and simple.

The comments on Dwight Garner’s piece are worth reading:

October 5th, 2011
10:15 am
Daily, if not hourly, I see writing along the lines of what was quoted from the updated Carnegie book. Supposedly educated people write like this now. They’re oblivious to how cringe-worthy this drivel is. I’m embarrassed for them. I’m a proofreader/copyeditor in an ad agency. Enough said, right?
Recommend Recommended by 35 Readers

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Jesse McKinley’s Tour de Force: Bang For The Buck

Times piece on $1 Stores lively and informative

Trivial topic transformed by adjectival commentary

If there is a more trivial topic ever assigned by the editors of the New York Times, what you can buy at Dollar Stores to outfit an apartment must be close to being that trough. Yet the piece Bang For the Buck: Can you outfit a household by shopping at dollar stores? Bet you 99 cents you can is not only readable, it is quite amusing.

January 11, 2012
Bang for the Buck

I’VE long considered myself something of a dollar store hobbyist, always keen to explore those strange overstuffed and understaffed emporiums. I like to think this is a sign of my sense of adventure, or my appreciation for the possibility of finding treasure among the stacks of plastics, paper goods and other environmentally noxious items.

My ex thought it was because I was cheap. Such disagreements may have had something to do with my recent need to outfit a new home for myself. And because my apartment is in Albany, the state’s capital and perhaps its dollar-store capital as well, my habit has turned into something resembling a full-time job.

In recent years, chains like Family Dollar, Dollar Tree and Dollar General have proliferated here and other cities across the country, adding hundreds of outlets to the existing assortment of mom-and-pop shops, the descendants of the traditional five-and-dime stores. Some of that growth can be attributed to the recession, of course, and the subsequent belt-tightening up and down the economic ladder. But there may be something else at work, too.

What might not be evident to most people is that in many ways the dollar store isn’t what it used to be: it’s better.

Indeed, while old-time one-buck peddlers hawked mostly cheap plastic products that wore out in a matter of days (but could clog a landfill for a lifetime), nowadays many dollar stores sell merchandise made of real glass, stainless steel, ceramics or fabric (and not polyester, which is just plastic in disguise).

I should know. In the last few months, I’ve outfitted or accessorized a kitchen, bathroom, office, dining room and several other rooms in my new apartment with all manner of $1 purchases.

My son’s room has been decorated with $1 letters covered in $1 paint spelling out his name (J A K E), and his fish swims around a $1 Elmo figurine. My pantry is stocked with $1 herbs in $1 jars, and $1 soups stacked alongside $1 canned veggies. I’ve amassed a collection of $1 ground spices (like cumin, cinnamon and mustard) and $1 salts (celery, bacon and garlic, among others).

I used $1 remedies while moving in (aspirin, muscle rub, bandages) and $1 luxuries to help me relax after (bubble bath, baby oil, cocktail glasses). I found $1 books to read (or leaf through, anyway) and $1 movies to mock. I washed clothes, dishes and myself with $1 soaps, and counters, tubs and sinks with $1 solvents. And I trudged from dollar shop to dollar shop with a $1 stocking cap pulled over my $1-fixated head.

In total, I spent about $200 — and several days of my life — in dollar stores of various kinds and sizes, in pursuit of products that in years past I might have bought from better-known, and more expensive, retailers.

All of which goes a long way toward explaining the recent success of dollar stores. In November, for example, Dollar Tree, the largest chain that sells only $1 items, reported quarterly net sales of $1.6 billion at its more than 4,000 locations in the United States and Canada, up nearly 12 percent from the same period the previous year. And last week, Family Dollar, which has a whopping 7,100 stores in 45 states and carries items with prices that can reach the double digits (a $35 home music system, too rich for my blood), reported that it had set a new record in the fall, with more than $2.1 billion in net sales of what it calls “a mix of name brands and quality private brand merchandise.”

A good chunk of that “private brand merchandise,” of course, comes from China and India, which are home to huge suppliers of dollar stores, not to mention some questionable manufacturing methods. But spokesmen for both stores insisted that the goods are safe (meaning they’ve been tested for lead) and were produced in humane working conditions.

“We want to work with organizations that treat their people well and take care of the environment,” said Joshua Braverman, a spokesman for Family Dollar. And while he acknowledged that the company’s “global sourcing program” partnered with factories around the world, Mr. Braverman patriotically insisted that “a majority of merchandise is from here in the United States.”

But there’s also plenty that isn’t. Take the Cristar line of glassware that I found — and bought loads of — at Yankee One Dollar, a chain that operates 32 stores in New York and Vermont. The glasses, which are simple, solid and decidedly unsexy, are imported from Colombia in shipping containers and then trucked upstate.

The national chains may be thriving, said Keith Flike, the owner of Yankee One Dollar, but increases in costs to transport such containers, as well as price increases passed on from overseas suppliers, are threatening regional dollar stores like his own.

“Last year, the Chinese raised their prices 15 cents on a bunch of stuff,” Mr. Flike said. “And 15 cents when you’re selling for $1 is a big chunk of profits.”

And from the consumer’s point of view, for sheer selection, it is hard to beat the big chains, which sometimes offer upward of 10,000 products in a single store.

Cleaning supplies and perishable items like food, health and beauty products make up about half of Dollar Tree’s business, said Timothy J. Reid, the company’s vice president for investor relations. But such “trip starters,” as they are known in the business, often lead to purchases of durable goods like glasses, plates and stemware. So Dollar Tree now has a dedicated housewares section in some stores.

As Mr. Braverman, of Family Dollar, put it, cleaning goods are “almost like the gateway product” for many dollar store shoppers.

“It starts with cleaning goods,” he said, “and ends up with a bedspread.”

WITHIN days of moving to Albany in late September, I began feeling the pull of addiction.

As Mr. Braverman predicted, my first stop was innocent enough: a small 99-cent store along Central Avenue, the city’s hardscrabble commercial strip, home to car dealerships, mini-malls and signs for unfortunately named local businesses like Grimm Building Materials. I bought a few bars of soap, a shower caddy, a trash can. Nothing major, nothing that required a bill larger than $5. No problem.

But a few days later, I discovered the Cristar collection at Yankee One Dollar, and soon I had acquired four tumblers. A few weeks later, I added champagne flutes and cocktail and wine glasses. Nearby, I noticed a nice glass vase and some decent votive candle holders. Which required votive candles, of course. Then I realized I needed some kitchen stuff, too: a ladle, a spatula, a set of wooden spoons. And look at those coffee mugs. …

I broke a $20.

Then came the holidays. Dollar stores are masters of the seasonal sale. They barely wait until New Year’s Day to break out the Valentine’s candy. And at Dollar Tree, the holiday merchandise is always displayed at the front of the store to lure people in toward other aisles, where they might find things like a “Star Wars” puzzle, a set of playing cards or a “Cars 2” sticker book, all for only $1 each. Those aisles lead the shopper to the cleaning supplies — aha! — and then on to foodstuffs and beauty goods and spices.

I found myself reaching for a set of matching plates and bowls (red, like my bottom line) and my corporate card.

Soon, though, I hit rock bottom. The occasion was a visit to an indie dollar store on the south side of Albany, which like many of its kind was part immigrant entrepreneurship, part bait-and-switch.

Not everything, it turned out, was 99 cents; many prices simply ended in 99 cents. But by this point, I fancied myself a savvy dollar shopper, able to find the deals amid the detritus.

It was when I picked up the MSG (just 99 cents) that I knew I had a problem. Here was a product I would never use — would never even touch — if it weren’t for the appeal of the price. And yet, I bought it.

I began to panic. What was I doing? Had I become a crass consumer? A hoarder? Or, worse still, was my ex right, that I was simply a cheapskate?

Once I got home, I calmed down. Much of what I had purchased over the last several months, I decided, was O.K. My desk was well organized, my pantry well stocked and my bathroom nearly spotless. My son had some nifty toys, and I had an impressive collection of glassware.

I also had a lot of things I didn’t need: three sets of salt shakers, two bottles of ground cinnamon and, of course, the MSG.

What I needed, I realized, was to purge — to rid myself of all those unnecessary items. Throwing them away would make me feel better. But first I needed a decent trash bag.

And I knew just where to get one.

Watching Your Fives and Dimes

While many old-time dollar stores were like a cross between a pawn shop and your grandmother’s attic, the modern dollar emporium is often a far more sophisticated operation, with clean aisles, its own line of products and thousands of locations. Dollar General, for example, has nearly 10,000 stores in 38 states, with new ones expected to open in California and Massachusetts this year. All of which means more opportunity to squander your child’s college fund, one dollar at a time. But there are ways to control this urge during your one-dollar odyssey.


The genius of some dollar stores lies in their layout. Dollar Tree, for instance, makes a point of putting seasonal items at the front of the store, close to party supplies, which tend to be in demand during, you guessed it, the holidays. That section naturally flows toward the area where you can find the cleaning supplies (for the after-party tidy-up), which usually leads to the food section: frozen, canned, candied, dried and other (for sustenance while you clean, naturally). The secret to not getting caught in this clever labyrinth is heading straight for the area that has what you need.


Of course, sometimes you don’t know what you need until you see it for a dollar. Or two for $1.50. Dollar stores, like most retailers, operate on the principle of more is better, or the price-per-unit paradox, something that requires a moment or two of rational thinking to break through. For example: It is true that if you buy four four-ounce bottles of ground mustard for $3, you are paying only 75 cents a bottle. But it is probably also true that you will never, in your entire life, consume a pound of ground mustard. So just buy one — unless, of course, you’re running a German restaurant.


Dollar stores survive by moving merchandise quickly. Timothy J. Reid, vice president of investor relations for Dollar Tree, said his company prides itself on having “a very flexible assortment model” in its more than 4,300 stores, which are fed by nine gigantic distribution centers. “We don’t have to have any particular item,” Mr. Reid said. “So things change out quite rapidly.” Still, it is unlikely that you won’t ever see that item again, and not just at that particular store or chain. Suppliers are not picky about which stores buy their low-cost items, so you can expect to see many of the same products — or at least similar ones — at various dollar stores.


One of the singular joys of dollar-store shopping is finding the odd orphans of mass production. At Yankee One Dollar, I happened on a Frankenstein monster of a tome, “Chicken Soup for the American Idol Soul,” with a special foreword by Paula Abdul calling it “the merging of two great twenty-first-century tours de force.” At another independent dollar store, I found a vast collection of unsung attempts at filmmaking, including a campfire horror flick called “Moonstalker,” starring someone named Ingrid Vold, and a Jaime Pressly-Jeremy Sisto drama called, appropriately enough, “Trash.” (I bought both. I finished neither.) For family fun, I’ve found a board game about the Underground Railroad (yes, that underground railroad) and a set of cards teaching Euchre for Dummies. There are Bizarro versions of Pepto-Bismol (Pink Bismuth) and ChapStick (Chap-Ex). And, of course, there is the Family Gourmet series of cookies I discovered at Family Dollar, which bear a striking resemblance to those of the Girl Scouts. “They are not Girl Scouts,” said Joshua Braverman, a Family Dollar spokesman. “But the parallel has been drawn.”

This literary conjuring trick made us wonder who the heck was Jesse McKinley?

Jesse McKinley has been the San Francisco bureau chief of The Times since 2006. He moved west after a stint as a culture reporter in New York City. He has followed firefighters into fires, accompanied politicians to their meetings and gay couples to their weddings and chronicled the efforts of a 150-year-old drinking society to put plaques on every historic site available.

Rather tightlipped of the Times, But here’s more from The Nytpicker:

EXCLUSIVE: Jesse McKinley, NYT San Francisco Bureau Chief, Rumored To Replace Sam Sifton as Culture Editor.
The latest hot rumor among NYT insiders is that Jesse McKinley, the NYT’s San Francisco bureau chief and a former NYT theater reporter, may soon be named to succeed Sam Sifton as the paper’s culture editor.

“No decision has been made at this time,” said NYT spokeswoman Catherine Mathis last night, responding to an email from The NYTPicker seeking confirmation of the McKinley rumor.

McKinley declined to comment on the possible promotion. “I’m afraid I have to defer to Catherine on this, as she speaks for the company on all personnel matters,” he said in an email to The NYTPicker last night.

On August 5, when asked by The NYTPicker for comment on a report in Sharon Waxman’s “The Wrap” that Living editor Trish Hall had gotten the Sifton slot, Mathis was far more emphatic in her denial. “We haven’t picked a next culture editor,” Mathis said at the time. “We’ve just begun the search.”

McKinley began writing for the NYT City section in 1993, and for three years handled the F.Y.I. column that answers readers’ local trivia questions. In 1998, the paper assigned him to the theater beat, a post he held for eight years. During that time he developed a reputation for thorough, dogged coverage of the New York City theater scene.

In 2006, the NYT rewarded McKinley with a plum assignment on the national desk, as its full-time bureau chief in San Francisco. Those jobs have often led to editing positions at the paper, and McKinley’s experience as a culture reporter lends his candidacy added weight. McKinley’s brother, James C. McKinley Jr., is the NYT’s Houston bureau chief.

It’s important to note that McKinley’s name has only surfaced as the latest rumored choice to fill the high-profile post. (We had our doubts about The Wrap’s report that Trish Hall had gotten the job, but reported it as one plausible scenario after former NYT culture reporter Waxman floated it on her site.) The final decision rests with executive editor Bill Keller, who surprised the rumor mill earlier this month with his unexpected choice of Sifton to take over the restaurant beat from Frank Bruni.

Didn’t happen, apparently. According to Wiki McKinley was born in 1970 and his brother James is also a Times bureau chief, in Mexico City.

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Charles Bukowski’s Pulp is Pure Fun

His last book, and perhaps his greatest entertainment, Pulp is a quietly hilarious twist on the detective thrillers of James Hadley Chase, Dashiell Hammett, etc. Each word is a jewel.

Don’t let your copy go -you’ll want to savor it again. And again.

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Hitchens Was Not Kindness Itself

Just how bad was the famous curmudgeon?

Kind acts, but hard words socially

Luckily, as in public, the wit sweetened the poison

Can there be better evidence of just how sour an experience it was below the surface to deal with the enormous ego of Christopher Hitchens, the one in a generation political and literary critic and public wasp whose command of language and rapier of logic allowed him to debunk sacred cows from Bill Clinton and Mother Theresa to God Above without causing any offense, of manners, at any rate, and keep the admiration of connoisseurs of verbal skirmish across the whole spectrum of American politics and media?

We are referring to Remembering Hitchens, a sketchy reminiscence of the great modern Cham by one of his protegees in the New York Observer last week.

The last time I saw Christopher Hitchens was on a sunny summer day on Irving Place. I had just had lunch with a friend and was walking leisurely around Gramercy Park. Though we were near the offices of The Nation, where I had met Christopher while an intern, it had been years since he had occasion to visit the magazine. He was, he reported, just strolling to an event at the New School.

“Gallagher,” (he always addressed me by my surname) “You’re looking well for yourself.” I thanked him and made a facetious comment about taking up jogging. “I see you can’t say the same for me,” he observed. Embarrassed at the oversight, I apologized, said he did look quite well and asked how he was.

He replied in the way he always did when one asked after his well-being: “Too soon to tell.”

Brian Thomas Gallagher appears to have been somewhat hypnotized by Hitchens in person and can come up with only slightly cruel and ill mannered remarks which- if they are accurately reported – only confirm that Hitchens was to large extent a bore if you didn’t cherish his passive-aggressive evisceration of counterargument to his views. These verbal Exocets were always well enough articulated, even by British standards, to be hard to reply to at the time, though they no doubt generated a lot of Parthian shots too late from debating opponents too easily dazzled, in fact mentally stunned, at the time by his belligerent verbal prowess.

Lovely, I thought, it will be nice to have a quick, intimate drink. When I arrived at the Wyoming building, where he lived, Bono was in the elevator with me. Bill Keller was already inside, and not far from him was Alice Waters.

When I found Christopher, I asked why he hadn’t warned me. He replied that I was the second smartest Irishman he knew, and that he supposed I would have guessed. I asked who the first was, and he dodged the question. It later occurred to me that he likely said that to many Irishmen. Nevertheless, I’d never been so charmed by being called second-best.

Another time, at a magazine holiday party, shortly after he’d written his slightly controversial piece arguing that women cannot be funny, we were discussing the delivery of jokes. I told what I then considered my go-to yarn. I thought he would be amused, since it involved some confusion between Catholic nuns and Orthodox Jews. As I unspooled the narrative, embellishing for effect, and even (misguidedly, perhaps) attempting accents, he eyed me with anticipation. When I reached the punchline, the reaction among the partygoers in our particular conversation was decidedly underwhelming.

Christopher took a sip of his Johnny Walker, pursed his lips and said with velveteen deadpan, “What you should do, Gallagher, is make that joke twice as long.” This delighted the rest of the group, particularly the women. I’ve not told the joke since.

Remembering Christopher Hitchens is a sadly revealing half page, complete with a picture of Hitchens looking bleak, if not illtempered, but the reason is apparently not because he has been taking endless chemotherapy, the ineffective standard treatment peddled by subscribers to the status quo in medicine, because he still has all his hair.

What it reveals is how few harmlessly amusing bon mots Hitchens generated even in the experience of a junior colleague that he liked and helped. Also, how retentive his memory was for a good line:

Speaking of “Why Women Aren’t Funny” (the piece, not the notion), one of my favorite Hitchens moments was his response to a pedantic letter to the editor in Vanity Fair from a Stanford academic. The man, Allan Reiss, purported to have done a scientific analysis of humor the refutted Christopher’s claim. In response, Christopher conjured a handily deflating riposte—which turned out to say so much about his mind.

“Way to prove my point,” he wrote. “I tried reading Reiss’s letter in the open air and birds fell dead from the clear blue sky,” he wrote.

It was only last year that I found out, when reading his memoir, Hitch 22, that that line, or something very close to it, was how Clive James dismissed Leonid Breznhev’s memoir in the pages of The New Statesman, in the early1970s. It seemed to me, in retrospect, that when Christopher repurposed the orbiter dictum, there must have been, perhaps, four people in the world who got the joke: himself, Clive James, Martin Amis and James Fenton. It was the perfect encapsulation of his intellect: expansive, historically aware, confrontational, playful, esoteric and steeped in the Oxbridge Left of the late 1960s.

The line is striking but not particularly witty, in fact, rather schoolboyish in level, so what to make of this presented as the literary highpoint of a Hitchens Rememberance? It all seems to reflect the fact that Hitchens was so preoccupied with his public role as gadfly bombast that he left no room for quiet, direct connection and communion with other souls. The effect on admirers who knew him personally was to short change them on the truth, an irony when you consider that his public posture was truthseeking behind the stage curtain.

Be that as it may, there seems to be no doubt that Hitchens won an unfair amount of admiration for what were often superficial and inconsistent views by voicing them in language so sharp that the knife went in painlessly, and he was so ready with his opinions, and so well stocked with knowledge of fashionable thought in higher circles, that he really didn’t seem to seek any response from his listeners that might change his mind.

Here is the whole evidence of this miserable testimony to all this, the underside of Hitchens brilliant surface and its dazzle:

The last time I saw Christopher Hitchens was on a sunny summer day on Irving Place. I had just had lunch with a friend and was walking leisurely around Gramercy Park. Though we were near the offices of The Nation, where I had met Christopher while an intern, it had been years since he had occasion to visit the magazine. He was, he reported, just strolling to an event at the New School.

“Gallagher,” (he always addressed me by my surname) “You’re looking well for yourself.” I thanked him and made a facetious comment about taking up jogging. “I see you can’t say the same for me,” he observed. Embarrassed at the oversight, I apologized, said he did look quite well and asked how he was.

He replied in the way he always did when one asked after his well-being: “Too soon to tell.” (Reportedly Zhou Enlai’s response when asked about the lasting effects of the French Revolution, though Christopher thought that story apocryphal). And indeed, it was too soon. Days later, he was diagnosed with the cancer that killed him last week.

It would be an exaggeration to say I was close with Christopher, but as I’m sure is the case for many others, he felt important to me. Not only did he help me get my first paying job in magazines, I also adored his writing, and more importantly greatly admired the way he reckoned with the world. (The past tense here seems so paltry.) As he was with many young writers, particularly interns, Christopher was far more generous with me than he needed to be.

For instance, on the occasion of Barack Obama’s inauguration. I, like the rest of New York City, it seemed, was heading to Washington for the festivities. I emailed Christopher and asked—though I knew he would likely be far too busy—if he would have time for a drink or two. He emailed back and said, “Why don’t you come by ours around 5 on Saturday for a cocktail.”

Lovely, I thought, it will be nice to have a quick, intimate drink. When I arrived at the Wyoming building, where he lived, Bono was in the elevator with me. Bill Keller was already inside, and not far from him was Alice Waters.

When I found Christopher, I asked why he hadn’t warned me. He replied that I was the second smartest Irishman he knew, and that he supposed I would have guessed. I asked who the first was, and he dodged the question. It later occurred to me that he likely said that to many Irishmen. Nevertheless, I’d never been so charmed by being called second-best.

Another time, at a magazine holiday party, shortly after he’d written his slightly controversial piece arguing that women cannot be funny, we were discussing the delivery of jokes. I told what I then considered my go-to yarn. I thought he would be amused, since it involved some confusion between Catholic nuns and Orthodox Jews. As I unspooled the narrative, embellishing for effect, and even (misguidedly, perhaps) attempting accents, he eyed me with anticipation. When I reached the punchline, the reaction among the partygoers in our particular conversation was decidedly underwhelming.

Christopher took a sip of his Johnny Walker, pursed his lips and said with velveteen deadpan, “What you should do, Gallagher, is make that joke twice as long.” This delighted the rest of the group, particularly the women. I’ve not told the joke since.

Speaking of “Why Women Aren’t Funny” (the piece, not the notion), one of my favorite Hitchens moments was his response to a pedantic letter to the editor in Vanity Fair from a Stanford academic. The man, Allan Reiss, purported to have done a scientific analysis of humor the refutted Christopher’s claim. In response, Christopher conjured a handily deflating riposte—which turned out to say so much about his mind.

“Way to prove my point,” he wrote. “I tried reading Reiss’s letter in the open air and birds fell dead from the clear blue sky,” he wrote.

It was only last year that I found out, when reading his memoir, Hitch 22, that that line, or something very close to it, was how Clive James dismissed Leonid Breznhev’s memoir in the pages of The New Statesman, in the early1970s. It seemed to me, in retrospect, that when Christopher repurposed the orbiter dictum, there must have been, perhaps, four people in the world who got the joke: himself, Clive James, Martin Amis and James Fenton. It was the perfect encapsulation of his intellect: expansive, historically aware, confrontational, playful, esoteric and steeped in the Oxbridge Left of the late 1960s.

Of his political evolution, much has been said—and continues to be said in comment threads under his various obituaries—particularly by those who used his support of the Iraq War to legitimize their own, and by those who were angered and hurt by what they saw as his apostasy.

That he was wrong on Iraq is probably academic by now, but it bears saying that he is surely the only person to have supported the invasion and yet never disavowed Trotskyism. And that is a paradox worth considering when taking stock of his moral motives.

Since Christopher’s death, I’ve heard and read quite a lot to the effect of “they don’t make them like Hitchens anymore.” But in truth, it’s not as if there were once droves of writers and speakers on hand with the genius for language and argument of Christopher Hitchens. They never “made them like Hitchens”; he was a once-in-a-generation writer.

It’s tempting to end on a sentimental note, but I would worry about nothing more than what Christopher himself would think. So, it seems safest to employ his own words, written on the occasion of Susan Sontag’s passing: “Anyway—Death be not proud.”

In other words, Hitchens was overbearing in a way that suggested that like so many comedians, his public persona was an entertaining way of deflecting examination of his own failings, ie his own evasion of scrutiny, just as his intellectual scrutiny was also a way of parrying it being turned on himself. Attack is the best for of defense, in other words.

So he could serve as an example of how much public figures give up to serve their audience and make their money. They sacrifice the possibility of real friendship with so many for the reward of adulation from the crowd.

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John Cheever On Editors

How Cheever reacted when Harold Ross cut off an ending

His idea of the best possible editor

High jinks at the writer’s workshop

If you want to know what kind of editor is best, ask a very prominent writer who doesn’t care to play politics.

Here is John Cheever speaking to the Paris review in 1969, just after Bullet Park was published. For some reason he didn’t leave the country, as he normally likes to do after publishing a book.

Here is the page (actually to be found also on page 129 in The PARIS REVIEW Interviews Writers at Work Edited by George Plimpton Introduction by Francine du Plessix Gray 5th Series Penguin paperback 1981):

Google books The Paris Review: Interviews,Volume 3

Or read it here:


It was a sad story.


Everyone keeps saying that about my stories, “Oh, they’re so sad.” My agent, Candida Donadio, called me about a new story and said, “Oh, what a beautiful story, it’s so sad.” I said, “All right, so I’m a sad man.” The sad thing about “The Brigadier and the Golf Widow” is the woman standing looking at the bomb shelter in the end of the story and then being sent away by a maid. Did you know that The New Yorker tried to take that out? They thought the story was much more effective without my ending. When I went in to look at page proofs, I thought there was a page missing. I asked where the end of the story was. Some girl said, “Mr. Shawn thinks it’s better this way.” I went into a very deep slow burn, took the train home, drank a lot of gin, and got one of the editors on the telephone. I was by then loud, abusive, and obscene. He was entertaining Elizabeth Bowen and Eudora Welty. He kept asking if he couldn’t take this call in another place. Anyhow, I returned to New York in the morning. They had reset the whole magazine—poems, newsbreaks, cartoons—and replaced the scene.


It’s the classic story about what The New Yorker is rumored to do—”remove the last paragraph and you’ve got a typical New Yorker ending.” What is your definition of a good editor?


My definition of a good editor is a man I think charming, who sends me large checks, praises my work, my physical beauty, and my sexual prowess, and who has a stranglehold on the publisher and the bank.

You wish. Probably possible in the old days, but now? We will have to ask a New Yorker writer. Possibly it suited Cheever, with the implied subservience, because the writer was a somewhat ornery charge, especially in his drunken later years:

In 1974, John Cheever accepted a teaching position at Boston University, the better to distance himself from his family and drink in peace. One of the first things he did on arrival was order stationery: “John Cheever/71 Bay State Road/Boston, Massachusetts 02215.” This enabled him to write despondent letters about how much he despised his new lodgings, and never mind the “sinister” part of town where he found himself, Kenmore Square (“part student, part slum”), whose most prominent feature was a school for embalming, or so he rarely failed to point out. At his (peremptory and belated) request, an apartment had been found for him in a handsome bow-front brownstone on a leafy street near campus, though it was hardly ideal for a 62-year-old alcoholic with a bad heart: Not only was it four flights up, but the interior was bleak and Cheever was disinclined to personalize it. “[There] is no point in listing the contents of these two rooms,” he wrote a friend shortly after his arrival. “It is much too decorous and efficient although there is dirty clothing on all the chairs.” His main attitude was one of bewilderment: He’d worked hard all his life—attained the pinnacle of his profession!—only to be banished by his family to two furnished rooms in Boston, where he expected to “end up penniless and naked,” what with the predations of the Plymouth Rock Laundry.

His relations with the university began with delinquencies on both sides and went downhill from there. As a last-minute replacement for Jean Stafford (who was allegedly drinking even more than Cheever), the obscure Ivan Gold had been hired to teach the other workshop section; consequently, most students had requested Cheever, whose classes were swamped. He repeatedly asked that the situation be remedied, but found the administration “quite mysterious” at best: The head of the English Department wasn’t returning his calls (he finally met the man by accident, standing at an adjoining urinal), while the head of the writing program, George Starbuck, seemed alarmed at the very sight of him. “I did not rise to the occasion of John’s troubles,” Starbuck later admitted, “did not effectively love or help him, floundered stupidly between catering to him… and pursuing some coherent plan of stern-but-supportive intervention.” And yet his wariness was at least somewhat understandable, since Cheever—quite apart from his disastrous alcoholism—had given signs of being very high-maintenance indeed. First he’d demanded that Starbuck find him suitable lodgings, then he’d let it be known that the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (where he’d taught the previous year) had “provided” him with a graduate student who served as a kind of secretary-cum- mistress- cum-nurse, and he expected BU to do the same. As Starbuck recalled, “There was (carefully) plenty of twinkle in his voice as he urged this. Pixie mischief. But he did urge it, and tell me he needed just that to keep him on an even keel.” Starbuck, however, balked at “playing procurer” even for so distinguished a colleague, whose invidious comparisons between Iowa and Boston usually ended with: “… and every night [in Iowa] there was someone to suck my cock!”

For the first month or two, Cheever was able to function as a teacher. Precisely because he drank before classes (vodka, mostly, since it was relatively odorless), he remained fairly alert and often held forth in an engaging way. His remarks tended to be incisive and sometimes led to worthwhile tangents about his own writing and what seemed to work for him. He found his students “responsive and contentious”—if not especially talented—and made a point of learning their names quickly and finding out what sort of books they liked (Gravity’s Rainbow was the rage, and Cheever also professed to like it—or rather, he liked it better than Vonnegut’s work, which was almost always the other favorite). He assigned “drills,” though these were received with even less enthusiasm than at Iowa. As an exercise in “describing the indescribable,” one of his students—a semi-famous novelist’s son, who fancied himself experimental—read an endless list of synonyms for death from Roget’s Thesaurus. A long silence followed. “It’s a found object,” the young man explained. Cheever threw back his head and studied the ceiling: “From now on,” he said at length (“sounding like Alfred Hitchcock after a pint of gin,” one student observed), “all found objects shall be designated F.O.’s.”

Not surprisingly, Cheever couldn’t be bothered to read his students’ work outside of class, as he seemed to think it was more than sufficient having to listen to it. Asked about a large manuscript on his coffee table—a novel, it so happened, by the semi-famous novelist’s son—Cheever closed his eyes and shook his head; when, however, he returned the manuscript (exactly one week after the epigone had given it to him), he declared it “perfect”: “Submit it to a New York publisher and they’ll publish it right away!” (“I never got it published,” the author reported 30 years later.) All graduate students, in fact, were required to get two professors to read and sign off on their thesis work, and whenever they managed to run Cheever to ground and ask for his signature, he was always happy to give it. “Oh yes very good,” he’d mutter, when they asked if he liked the work in question.

Whatever remained of Cheever’s willpower was entirely reserved for showing up; outside the classroom, he barely functioned at all. His most constant companion was a graduate student named Laurens Schwartz, whom Cheever had recommended for a full scholarship. Schwartz endeavored to return the favor. Since Cheever “had a tendency to walk out of his apartment nude,” Schwartz would meet him several mornings a week to make sure he was properly dressed. Dirty clothes were strewn about the rooms; the butcher-block table in the kitchen was covered with empty bottles and rotting fruit (brought by Cheever’s wife). Trembling from head to toe, unable to speak, Cheever would walk with Schwartz to a seedy hotel bar on the way to campus, where a rock-faced waitress in a miniskirt would wordlessly bring her only customer a double vodka on the rocks. As Schwartz recalled, “Cheever was like one of those toy birds who peck at a water glass: He’d lower his head, sip, come up, and repeat. Maybe halfway through he’d finally be able to pick up the glass.” He’d also tentatively attempt speech, and after a few garbled phrases would begin to make some kind of sense, whereupon he’d become tearful, as if his own words were unbearable to hear. His life was such a mess: He had no clean clothes, the proprietor of the Plymouth Rock Laundry was a bandit, and for the last 17 days he’d subsisted entirely on oranges and hamburgers. On it went. Meanwhile he tried to light a cigarette, the matches falling one after the other from twitching fingers; Schwartz, snatching the embers out of Cheever’s lap, once counted 30 matches to light a single cigarette. Over and over Schwartz implored the decrepit man to see a doctor, but Cheever seemed more interested in maundering about his woes than in doing much about them. “It was like taking care of a child,” said Schwartz, echoing his various predecessors.

Word traveled fast that Cheever was an all but hopeless drunk. The eminent Harvard psychologist Henry A. Murray—creator of the Thematic Apperception Test, as well as a notable Melville enthusiast—had thrown a welcoming party for Cheever, a mistake neither he nor any of his guests was likely to repeat. On arrival Cheever shoved an armchair into the middle of the living room, where he drooped slack-jawed for the rest of the evening, cigarettes turning to ash in his fingers and crumbling to the carpet. Michael Janeway had found Cheever’s condition “heartbreaking”: As a boy he’d received a kindly, encouraging letter from Cheever, who was friends with his mother, Elizabeth. Now a 34-year-old editor at the Atlantic Monthly, Janeway had arranged to meet Cheever at the Ritz Grill with the magazine’s editor in chief, Robert Manning, another of Cheever’s old acquaintances. Any hope of soliciting a story dissipated over the course of lunch, as their guest emptied multiple mini-carafes of martinis amid a sodden monologue on his ruined marriage and the like. As Janeway recalled, “The message was (his and mine), ‘You don’t want to get too close.’”

As for John Updike, he too was estranged from a wife named Mary and living in Back Bay about a mile from Cheever. The similarities ended there. They’d met by accident in September, outside Brooks Brothers, where Cheever had invited Updike to join him while he blithely purchased two pairs of tasseled loafers, though the tassels gave him very slight pause. (He subsequently told Schwartz that he’d “trained” Updike never to inquire about prices when shopping for clothes.) That done, the two adjourned to the Kon-Tiki bar at the Park Plaza, where Cheever instructed the waiter with great urgency to bring him doubles (“as if a drink that was merely single might in its weakness poison him”). Saying good-bye on Commonwealth, Updike paused to watch his “wobbly” elder colleague walking away under the elms: “I felt badly,” he remembered, “because it was as though a natural resource was being wasted. Although the covetousness in me, and stony heart, kind of rejoiced to see one less writer to compete with.” Cheever likewise noted the “conspicuous ego clash” between the two and yet remained galled (as ever) by Updike’s failure to cultivate warmer relations. “Updike never calls me,” he complained. “We bump into each other and it’s like old times, but he never calls me!” Updike did, in fact, call him—but at measured intervals. Before a night at Symphony Hall, Updike had helped the drunken, naked Cheever get into his clothes, and another time he took him to the Museum of Fine Arts to see an old Garbo film, which proved to be sold-out; dining instead at the Cafe Budapest, Updike was startled afterward when Cheever bolted out of the car in Roxbury to buy cigarettes “at a dark and heavily grated corner emporium.”

Later, reading Falconer, Updike seemed to recognize the novel’s first sentences as the same ones he’d spotted on a sheet of paper stuck in Cheever’s typewriter—always the same dusty sheet, unaltered. Whether Cheever made any further progress in Boston is unlikely. A visitor from nearby Bradford College, James Valhouli, had read parts of Cheever’s Boston journal (later destroyed) and found them “incoherent,” while Laurens Schwartz observed that Cheever could hardly type: “He used his forefingers, punching out each letter at one-second intervals…. He wrote two lines and suddenly faded out.” The reason he made that one attempt in Schwartz’s presence—drunk, late at night—was because he intended to rewrite one of the young man’s stories (“I’m going to get it published for you”), having mentioned that he’d rewritten other students’ stories and even parts of Updike. This, of course, was the pathetic braggadocio of a man who hadn’t done a first-rate piece of work (as he saw it) since his novel Bullet Park six years before, and had begun to suspect his career and perhaps his life was over. When his agent, Candida Donadio, sent him a copy of the acclaimed new novel by Joseph Heller, Something Happened, Cheever read a few pages and threw it out the window. Because he liked it.

Read on here at

The other famous person in the BU writing program was the poet Anne Sexton, whom Cheever found “aggressive” and mostly avoided. The two had met at a faculty dinner hosted by the dean, where both engaged in a kind of caustic banter meant to shock their less illustrious colleagues and perhaps each other. Ivan Gold remembered sensing a “visceral distaste” between the two, while the poet John Malcolm Brinnin and Starbuck tried to distract the dean and his wife at the other end of the table: “Did they overhear that?” the two men worried with each new explosion of naughtiness from Cheever and Sexton. Whatever their incompatibility otherwise, Sexton somewhat endeared herself to Cheever by spiking his coffee with vodka at tedious faculty meetings.

Sexton killed herself on October 4, 1974, and Cheever “never quite got over this.” Despite the fact that Sexton had been suicidal for most of her adult life, nobody really expected it: Her friend Brinnin was under the impression that she’d “never been so happy,” while Ivan Gold had found her “sardonic, nervous, full of a crazed energy.” For his part, Cheever seemed to regard the tragedy as emblematic of the whole ghastly situation—aspects of which included the apathetic, feckless administration of a “fourth-rate” university near an embalming school in an utterly, utterly dismal part of Boston. Cheever boycotted the memorial service, threatening to resign on the spot and go home.

But home to what? Over Thanksgiving his family tried to rouse him out of his funk with some hearty persiflage at the dinner table, an occasion to which Cheever was decidedly unable to rise. “Susie said that I put on a rather bad show,” he wrote a friend afterward, “and I shall try to do better at Christmas.” This was not to be. Returning to Cedar Lane a month later, Cheever appeared to be on the verge of death—an impression he soon confirmed by coughing uncontrollably and turning blue. This was the usual heart trouble, and once again he went to Phelps Memorial hospital and stayed a few days to dry out. Perhaps to underline the gravity of his predicament, a young priest visited his “extraordinarily bleak” room. Cheever, wearing pajamas, bemusedly knelt on the linoleum floor and received Holy Communion, then said, “Thank you, Father,” and watched the man depart.

Back home he demanded a drink, and when his family protested, he asked if he might take a valium instead; given the go-ahead, he swallowed three and poured himself a drink. During the Christmas feast, a hush fell over the table as he tried to eat peas: Time after time, suspensefully, the trembling fork ascended, only to spill its savory burden at the crucial moment. At last, a spoon was suggested. “I regret to tell you,” said Cheever (putting the fork aside), “that you have a father who is dying.” A look went around the table, and Federico said: “We have a father with a taste for melodrama.” This eased the tension somewhat, though it was precisely the sort of thing Cheever was apt to find “unfeeling.” On New Year’s Day he became enraged when his family advised him to eat lentils “in order to ensure an income”: Crashing upstairs to his room, Cheever yanked the cover off his bed and fell over backward, unconscious.

Though he’d almost died over the holidays, Cheever returned to Boston for the spring semester and the situation duly deteriorated. Sadly he reported to friends that the place was “straight asshole” and his students had become “sluggish.” He’d persuaded Updike to visit his combined classes for a two-hour Q&A session that Cheever abruptly terminated after less than an hour (evidently startling Updike), because his overawed students had proved unresponsive. “You had an opportunity to ask John Updike questions,” he subsequently told them in a seething voice, “and nobody said a damn thing.” After that, he seemed to give up. He went through the motions, more or less, but didn’t bother to disguise his drunkenness or do much in the way of teaching. He also kept a rather flexible schedule. “Should we go looking for him?” his worried students murmured one day when he was 15 minutes late for class. An expedition was forming when they spotted their teacher shuffling past the door. “Mr. Cheever?” they called. “Mr. Cheever?” An elegant voice floated down the hall: “Ye-esss…?” “We sort of talked him back into the room,” one student recalled. “He returned with this big grin and went around the table kissing all the women and shaking hands with the men.” That was a relatively good day. More and more, Cheever seemed utterly unprepared and would either read one of his own stories or just sit there looking depressed until his students gradually drifted away. One youth expressed his contempt by removing his shirt and climbing on top of the circled desks, stalking around the room while Cheever gazed at him in quiet puzzlement.

His last month in Boston was a free fall. An old friend named Raphael Rudnik—who’d heard of Cheever’s distress and had an intuition that he was about to kill himself—tried to cheer him up with a visit, but found him “unreachable.” The only thing Cheever wanted to think or talk about was drinking. When Rudnik tried to get him to eat, Cheever said, “If I eat, can we go out to drink?” Rudnik pointed out that he was already on the verge of passing out. “Yes,” said Cheever, “but you’re not.” Perhaps the last social engagement (formal) that Cheever kept was a dinner with Sally Swope at her father’s house on Louisburg Square. He arrived an hour late in pouring rain, slipped on the steps, and cracked his head on a newel post; a maid bandaged the gaping wound, and Cheever tardily joined the others at table. From that point on, he tended to decline invitations and discourage visitors. Meanwhile, if indeed he was dying, then he supposed he might as well indulge the rest of his appetites, too. Buying a “cock magazine” struck him as “a blow for common sense” (though he couldn’t quite decide how to dispose of the thing), and he also brought at least one male prostitute back to his apartment, “hurry[ing] him out the door” once their business was concluded.

Around this time he sat next to a bum in the park and asked for a “pull” from the man’s bottle, and soon he began hoping he’d be hit by a car while walking in traffic. When his student Rick Siggelkow stopped for a visit, Cheever insisted on giving the (much taller) young man a pair of dark, lightweight Brooks Brothers suits: “Now you have two suits to use for a summer funeral,” he remarked. (Siggelkow mused that this was a “very Cheever” thing to say: “Everything was always evocative of something else. In other words, he didn’t just give me two suits, he gave me ‘two suits to use for a summer funeral,’ and the way he said it you could see yourself standing at that funeral wearing those suits.”) While the two were drinking, Cheever began to cough and gasp for breath, finally asking Siggelkow to call for an ambulance—then, quite adamantly, changing his mind. “You really have to go,” he said, closing his eyes and sitting rigidly back in his chair, “or something’s going to happen we’re both going to regret.” Siggelkow protested, but Cheever demanded he leave immediately, and when the student glanced up from the bottom of the stairs, Cheever was looking down at him with a forced, cordial, miserable smile (this a matter of “New England breeding,” Siggelkow figured).

At the insistence of his older brother, Fred—who lived in nearby Plymouth and called each morning to make sure John was still alive—Cheever resigned his teaching position in late March, though not before calling the department head a “delinquent asshole.” His bitterness was general, and when a man came by his apartment to collect the telephone, Cheever ripped it out of the wall and threw it at him. Toward his students, however, he was nothing but apologetic: Speaking with averted eyes, he allowed that he’d been treated shabbily by the university, but his problems ran deeper and he simply couldn’t go on. For the remaining six weeks of the semester, he told them, Updike would take his classes and the students would be far better off.

Free at last, Cheever spent his final days on Bay State Road in the usual manner. The Sunday before his departure, he gave Ivan Gold a call: “I’m faring rather poorly,” he announced, asking whether he might borrow a bottle of gin. Gold happened to have an almost untouched fifth of Gordon’s on hand and was even willing to throw in a bottle of Noilly Prat: He and Cheever had not been close, and Gold saw this as a belated chance to “talk with a master.” But when Cheever arrived (the two lived only a few brownstones apart, which was doubtless part of Cheever’s rationale in choosing a donor), he gave no sign of wishing to stay. Gold’s three-year-old son thought Cheever looked like a monkey and said so repeatedly (Gold explained he was actually saying marquis), and Cheever regarded the boy and the two convivial cocktails in Gold’s hands with equal dismay. “I scrubbed the plan and ushered him out,” Gold remembered. “From the window I watched him scurry with the loot back to his dark sanctuary.”

When Fred failed to reach John on the telephone (unaware of its sudden removal), he became concerned and rushed to Bay State Road, where he found his brother naked and incoherent. He got him dressed and drove him home to Ossining. The next day, Fred wrote his son a circumspect account of the episode, noting that he was “in deep concern” about John: “He is such an extraordinary person, not only very knowledgeable and bright, but kind and loving, [and] it would hurt many, many people if anything were to happen to him.” Such was Fred’s haste in rescuing his brother that he didn’t bother to retrieve any manuscripts, or, for that matter, John’s false teeth and Academy of Arts and Letters badge, which were eventually found in the bedroom dresser.

“I must have been quite drunk and mad,” Cheever wrote a few weeks later, as he realized he remembered nothing of the drive back to Ossining (during which he’d drunk a bottle of scotch and then urinated into the empty bottle), or even his subsequent hospitalization at Phelps, where he was found to be suffering from a degree of brain damage in addition to a failing heart. Given one more chance to choose between life and death, Cheever seemed on the whole to prefer living—defiant of the expectation that he should go on fulfilling the “Orphic myth.” Where he differed with his wife and doctors was in how, exactly, to proceed with his recovery. His psychiatrist had arranged for him to be admitted to the Smithers Rehabilitation Unit on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, which involved an “intensive” 28-day in-patient treatment program. Balking at the prospect of incarceration, Cheever phoned his daughter and insisted she find out whether the program was affiliated with Alcoholics Anonymous, as he refused to get mixed up with a “bunch of Christers.” Susan did so, and someone at Smithers denied the connection—falsely, but in accord with AA’s principle of anonymity. Cheever would later concede that the lie had saved his life, but at the time he was decidedly ambivalent and even tried to jump out of the car when Mary drove him to Smithers on April 9.

All things considered, he was in remarkably good fettle on arrival: He seemed fairly lucid, and his vital signs were normal. After his typewriter was turned upside down to check for contraband, he was given the abbreviated Shipley IQ test (scoring, as ever, in the high-average range) and the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory. It was the screening interview that gave counselors pause: Cheever’s memory was “apparently poor,” they noted, since he denied ever having blackouts, DTs, or any psychiatric treatment (aside from “some marriage counseling” five years before), though his medical records plainly contradicted him on all these points, and never mind the patient’s claim that “all his trouble began [my italics] with the suicide of a close friend [Sexton!] last year.” Despite such “minimization,” he seemed otherwise cooperative, relating well (if reservedly) with staff and patients alike. “A bummer; not really bad, but not good,” he wrote in his journal that second day. “At breakfast I am asked not to sit at a particular table. We do not play musical chairs around here, says an authoritative woman of perhaps forty, a little heavy.” But he hadn’t much time to dwell on his social progress. Between meals (“meat and rice and Jell-O”), he was shunted from lectures to group sessions to individual meetings with one humorless staffer or another, and such free time as he enjoyed was supposed to be spent poring over the wisdom of AA founders “Bill W.” and “Dr. Bob.” As he wrote a friend, “The indoctrination here is stern, evangelical, protestant and tireless.”

The main objective of such a program is to break down the alcoholic’s denial, and Cheever proved a difficult patient precisely because he seemed so tractable, at least for a while. Asked about his appetite (he loathed the food), he’d answer, “Fine.” Sleeping all right? “Fine.” Are you an alcoholic? “Yes.” But in fact he found it almost impossible to believe that he had much in common with the other “dismal” patients, the milieu being nothing if not democratic. “I share a bedroom and a bath with four other men,” he wrote. “1. is an unsuccessful con man. 2. an unsuccessful German delicatessen owner. 3. an unemployable sailor with a troll’s face and faded tatoos [sic], and 4. a leading dancer from American Ballet.”

For the most part, Cheever’s demeanor was detached and vaguely ironical. One doctor, becoming emotional during a lecture, noticed the quick look of amusement on Cheever’s face. Which is not to say his judgments were always dismissive or that he was anything less than attentive; rather, he was keeping his own counsel and doing his best to stay out of harm’s way, since he found Smithers a brutal place where vulnerability was apt to be punished. “During group analysis a young man talks about his bisexuality and is declared by everyone in the group but me as a phoney,” he observed in his journal. “I perhaps should have said that if it is phoney to have anxieties about bisexuality I must declare myself a phoney.” Years later, Cheever was still complaining that the staff had been “pitiless” about the young man’s bisexuality, even to the point of hounding him out of the program. That the director of Smithers, LeClaire Bissell, was herself an open lesbian would suggest he’d willfully missed the point—namely, that one shouldn’t use sexual issues, one way or the other, as an excuse to drink. “The director,” he noted, “toward whom I have some complicated vibrations, says that a healthy person can adjust to acceptable social norms. The banality of a TV show, certainly acceptable, is what makes me want to drink.” That was the kind of attitude (the world is to blame in all its deadening banality, especially given one’s higher sensibility—etc.) that provoked the staff into insisting, after a week or so, that Cheever stop writing so much in his journal and start concentrating on the Twelve Steps. Resignedly he wrote his brother Fred, “They don’t want me to work and it seems best to play along with this and everything else.”

So Cheever played along, or so he might have thought, but it only got worse. He was heckled mercilessly for his affectations. For example, he’d long cultivated a tendency to pause with a kind of strained look, as if groping for words, gathering strength, before coming out with some mellifluous pronouncement; observing this, one counselor noted that he seemed “on the verge of belching” and was “very impressed with self.” As for his literary reputation (“he insists [his novels] have been very successful”), only a handful of people at Smithers knew Cheever from any other drunk, and nobody really cared in any case. Sensing as much—though naturally wishing to be identified with his achievement—Cheever “almost surreptitiously” presented an autographed book to his personal counselor, Ruth Maxwell, who promptly returned to the subject of his drinking. At length Cheever responded as if he were forced to chat with some tiresome guest at a dinner party—as if he were bored to death with the same old subject but willing to go along as a matter of politeness. “I’m really all right but I can’t say so here because only the hopeless lush claims to be all right,” he wrote a friend. “That’s a point of view I’m discouraged from taking because I’ve ruined my life with false light-heartedness.” This was irony, of course, and yet even Cheever’s friends had often wondered at his constant, nervous “outward tremor of laughter” (as Shirley Hazzard put it), sometimes at very odd moments; as for the people at Smithers, they were openly startled by it. “Why are you laughing?” they demanded again and again, as Cheever tittered at some grindingly miserable memory from his youth, or some cruelty he’d inflicted on his children.

Bullied at every turn for his “false light-heartedness” and “grandiosity,” Cheever retreated into a vast, fraudulent humility. “Oh but of course you’re right,” he’d mutter (in so many words) when challenged. Nobody was fooled or amused. Carol Kitman, a staff psychologist, remarked that Cheever reminded her of Uriah Heep: “He is a classic denier who moves in and out of focus,” she wrote in her progress notes. “He dislikes seeing self negatively and seems to have internalized many rather imperious upper class Boston attitudes which he ridicules and embraces at the same time…. Press him to deal with his own humanity.” Told he was just like John Berryman, Cheever (“humbly”) replied, “But he was a brilliant poet and an estimable scholar, and I’m neither.” Yes, said the counselor, but he was also a phony and a drunk, and now he’s dead; is that what you want? Cheever affected to take this sort of thing in stride, though in fact it was a ghastly humiliation. “Non posso, cara,” he’d weepily tell his daughter during his daily call from a communal pay phone. “Non posso stare qui.” He sounded so defeated that Susan worried he wouldn’t last another day, and began parking her car outside the Newsweek building so she could leave work immediately and rush him to the gentler Silver Hill in Connecticut, where she’d made a reservation just in case. “Fifteen patients have fled since I joined the fun,” Cheever reported to a friend on April 21. “It’s quite sad in this part of Siberia.”

But Cheever stayed put and gradually began to make progress. A more tolerant attitude toward his fellow patients seemed to help. At first he’d been appalled by the “human garbage” he had to share quarters with: They stole from each other; they refused to clean their pubic hair out of the bathtub. Unable to dissemble his distaste, Cheever himself became roundly disliked; when it was his turn to wait on tables, he was so anxious over potential hazing that he spilled a dish of peas into a woman’s lap. Confronted in group sessions for being aloof and snobbish, Cheever finally broke down and assured the others that he was taking things “very seriously” indeed. By the time his family came for a Sunday visit, Cheever appeared to be almost at peace with his environment. “Alcoholism seems to be an infirmity of the lower classes,” Mary observed, peering around the dining room, but Cheever’s own gaze was humorous and fond. “I always liked running with a crowd of whom my mother disapproved,” he later remarked, “and Smithers did that.” Around the middle of his stay, “a lame black who knits and crochets” moved into his room and proved every bit as disaffected as Cheever had been two weeks ago: “He says that if he were strong enough to carry his suitcase down the stairs he would leave. I’ve offered to take his suitcase down but he doesn’t answer.”

Toward the end, it was the prospect of leaving that sometimes worried Cheever. “I call Mary from time to time and she is full of complaints,” he wrote William Maxwell. “The bank can’t add, the dogs (4) are muddy, the lawns are dry, Susie has followed a worthless man to Chicago, and by innuendo her husband is in a dryout mansion on east 93rd.” In his journal he wrote a more somber account of the conversation (Mary had been “very bad-tempered,” mainly because his lost bank statements—abandoned in Boston—had led to a $2,000 overdraft): “This sort of thing provokes my drinking,” he concluded. “It makes me afraid to return.” The staff at Smithers was also somewhat afraid on his behalf. When Mary failed to appear for a scheduled conference, one of the counselors gave her a call; with glacial politeness she explained that they couldn’t tell her anything about her husband she didn’t already know after some 35 years of marriage—but not to worry, as she had no intention of leaving him (“he’s an old man who needs to be taken care of”). “She seems to operate in a very passive aggressive way,” the counselor noted, “and to have given up on her husband who is now just somebody she’ll have to care for until he dies.” Informed of her position, Cheever seemed unsurprised if a little self-pitying, remarking that he’d always been the more “giving” partner in the marriage.

When Cheever was released on May 7, his prognosis was “guarded” (“Consensus is that p[atien]t is so wrapped up in self that there is no room for anything else”). Ruth Maxwell had laughed out loud when Cheever suddenly announced that he’d never drink again, but Dr. Robert de Veer was convinced Cheever had actually accepted the fact that he was an alcoholic and therefore had no excuse—be it a bad marriage or a banal TV show—for drinking, ever. One of Cheever’s students in Boston had been particularly skeptical that such a drunken man could ever get sober, and one day he received a postcard from his old teacher with a terse message:


That’s from the mysterious Vice, a site whose name is somewhat misleading, but perhaps not.

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Short and Perfect: Keret’s “Creative Writing”

New Yorker surprise Christmas present for all

Who is Etgar Keret?

The polished turn of “Creative Writing” a short story on p67 of the New Yorker January 2 2012 issue, out just before Christmas, deserves celebration of an unrestrained, New Years Eve kind. A deadpan account of a wife and then husband sucked into “creative-writing workshops” with rather remarkable results, there is a delicious note of mildly tragic irony throughout as a comment on the human condition, domesticity-wise. But perhaps most satisfying to the less sensitive among us, the tinge of narcissism and betrayed hopes of distinction and even public fame which attend such efforts to escape common anonymity, not to mention lack of recognition by one’s live in loved one, are pointed up with secret relish.

JANUARY 2, 2012
Q. & A.: Etgar Keret discusses “Creative Writing” with Deborah Treisman.
The first story Maya wrote was about a world in which people split themselves in two instead of reproducing. In that world, every person could, at any given moment, turn into two beings, each one half his/her age. Some chose to do this when they were young; for instance, an eighteen-year-old might split into two nine-year-olds. Others would wait until they’d established themselves professionally and financially and go for it only in middle age. The heroine of Maya’s story was splitless. She had reached the age of eighty and, despite constant social pressure, insisted on not splitting. At the end of the story, she died.

It was a good story, except for the ending. There was something depressing about that part, Aviad thought. Depressing and predictable. But Maya, in the writing workshop she had signed up for, actually got a lot of compliments on the ending. The instructor, who was supposed to be this well-known writer, even though Aviad had never heard of him, told her that there was something soul-piercing about the banality of the ending, or some other piece of crap. Aviad saw how happy that compliment made Maya. She was very excited when she told him about it. She recited what the writer had said to her the way people recite a verse from the Bible. And Aviad, who had originally tried to suggest a different ending, backpedalled and said that it was all a matter of taste and that he really didn’t understand much about it.

It had been her mother’s idea that she should go to a creative-writing workshop. She’d said that a friend’s daughter had attended one and enjoyed it very much. Aviad also thought that it would be good for Maya to get out more, to do something with herself. He could always bury himself in work, but, since the miscarriage, she never left the house. Whenever he came home, he found her in the living room, sitting up straight on the couch. Not reading, not watching TV, not even crying. When Maya hesitated about the course, Aviad knew how to persuade her. “Go once, give it a try,” he said, “the way a kid goes to day camp.” Later, he realized that it had been a little insensitive of him to use a child as an example, after what they’d been through two months before. But Maya actually smiled and said that day camp might be just what she needed.

The second story she wrote was about a world in which you could see only the people you loved. The protagonist was a married man in love with his wife. One day, his wife walked right into him in the hallway and the glass he was holding fell and shattered on the floor. A few days later, she sat down on him as he was dozing in an armchair. Both times, she wriggled out of it with an excuse: she’d had something else on her mind; she hadn’t been looking when she sat down. But the husband started to suspect that she didn’t love him anymore. To test his theory, he decided to do something drastic: he shaved off the left side of his mustache. He came home with half a mustache, clutching a bouquet of anemones. His wife thanked him for the flowers and smiled. He could sense her groping the air as she tried to give him a kiss. Maya called the story “Half a Mustache,” and told Aviad that when she’d read it aloud in the workshop some people had cried. Aviad said, “Wow,” and kissed her on the forehead. That night, they fought about some stupid little thing. She’d forgotten to pass on a message or something like that, and he yelled at her. He was to blame, and in the end he apologized. “I had a hellish day at work,” he said and stroked her leg, trying to make up for his outburst. “Do you forgive me?” She forgave him.

The workshop instructor had published a novel and a collection of short stories. Neither had been much of a success, but they’d had a few good reviews. At least, that’s what the saleswoman at a bookstore near Aviad’s office told him. The novel was very thick, six hundred and twenty-four pages. Aviad bought the book of short stories. He kept it in his desk and tried to read a little during lunch breaks. Each story in the collection took place in a different foreign country. It was a kind of gimmick. The blurb on the back cover said that the writer had worked for years as a tour guide in Cuba and Africa and that his travels had influenced his writing. There was also a small black-and-white photograph of him. In it, he had the kind of smug smile of someone who feels lucky to be who he is. The writer had told Maya, she said to Aviad, that when the workshop was over he’d send her stories to his editor. And, although she shouldn’t get her hopes up, publishers these days were desperate for new talent.

Her third story started out funny. It was about a woman who gave birth to a cat. The hero of the story was the husband, who suspected that the cat wasn’t his. A fat ginger tomcat that slept on the lid of the dumpster right below the window of the couple’s bedroom gave the husband a condescending look every time he went downstairs to throw out the garbage. In the end, there was a violent clash between the husband and the cat. The husband threw a stone at the cat, which countered with bites and scratches. The injured husband, his wife, and the kitten she was breastfeeding went to the clinic for him to get a rabies shot. He was humiliated and in pain but tried not to cry while they were waiting. The kitten, sensing his suffering, uncurled itself from its mother’s embrace, went over to him, and licked his face tenderly, offering a consoling “Meow.” “Did you hear that?” the mother asked emotionally. “He said ‘Daddy.’ ” At that point, the husband could no longer hold back his tears. And, when Aviad read that passage, he had to try hard not to cry, too. Maya said that she’d started writing the story even before she knew she was pregnant again. “Isn’t it weird,” she asked, “how my brain didn’t know yet, but my subconscious did?”

The next Tuesday, when Aviad was supposed to pick her up after the workshop, he arrived half an hour early, parked his car in the lot, and went to find her. Maya was surprised to see him in the classroom, and he insisted that she introduce him to the writer. The writer reeked of body lotion. He shook Aviad’s hand limply and told him that if Maya had chosen him for a husband he must be a very special person.

Three weeks later, Aviad signed up for a beginners’ creative-writing class. He didn’t say anything about it to Maya, and, to be on the safe side, he told his secretary that if he had any calls from home she should say that he was in an important meeting and couldn’t be disturbed. The other members of the class were mostly elderly women, who gave him dirty looks. The thin young instructor wore a head scarf, and the women in the class gossiped about her, saying that she lived in a settlement in the occupied territories and had cancer. She asked everyone to do an exercise in automatic writing. “Write whatever comes into your head,” she said. “Don’t think, just write.” Aviad tried to stop thinking. It was very hard. The old women around him wrote with nervous speed, like students racing to finish an exam before the teacher tells them to put their pens down, and after a few minutes he began writing, too.

The story he wrote was about a fish that was swimming happily along in the sea when a wicked witch turned it into a man. The fish couldn’t come to terms with his transformation and decided to chase down the wicked witch and make her turn him back into a fish. Since he was an especially quick and enterprising fish, he managed to get married while he was pursuing her, and even to establish a small company that imported plastic products from the Far East. With the help of the enormous knowledge he had gained as a fish who had crossed the seven seas, the company began to thrive and even went public. Meanwhile, the wicked witch, who was a little tired after all her years of wickedness, decided to find all the people and creatures she’d cast spells on, apologize to them, and restore them to their natural state. At one point, she even went to see the fish she had turned into a man. The fish’s secretary asked her to wait until he’d finished a satellite meeting with his partners in Taiwan. At that stage in his life, the fish could hardly remember that he was in fact a fish, and his company now controlled half the world. The witch waited several hours, but when she saw that the meeting wouldn’t be ending any time soon she climbed onto her broom and flew off. The fish kept doing better and better, until one day, when he was really old, he looked out the window of one of the dozens of huge shoreline buildings he’d purchased in a smart real-estate deal, and saw the sea. And suddenly he remembered that he was a fish. A very rich fish who controlled many subsidiary companies that were traded on stock markets around the world, but still a fish. A fish who, for years, had not tasted the salt of the sea.

When the instructor saw that Aviad had put down his pen, she gave him an inquiring look. “I don’t have an ending,” he whispered apologetically, keeping his voice down so as not to disturb the old ladies who were still writing. ♦

(Translated, from the Hebrew, by Sondra Silverston.)

the New Yorker page

What a pity it ends here – one could have read ten more pages of this exquisitely funny, poignant half-jibe and half sympathetic sketch.

Well, there are many more in print, so there is no problem. Who is Etgar Keret? Here from Time:

His quick-fix fiction has won Keret plaudits and fame. Missing Kissinger, his breakthrough book, came out in 1994 (published in the U.K. and the U.S. this March, most of the stories here appear for the first time in English). It was chosen as one of the 50 most important works in Hebrew by the daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, and is on the Israeli high school syllabus. Keret now pens caustic satirical sketches for Israeli TV, has published a series of comic books and won Israel’s equivalent of a Best Picture Oscar for Skin Deep, a movie he co-directed. He also dabbles in punditry: last summer, he wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times that suggested the Israeli public found last summer’s war against Lebanon comforting, as it removed the moral ambiguities inherent in the country’s conflict with the Palestinians….

Above all, perhaps, Keret wants to show how complex life gets. He should know: he was born in 1967, the year of the Six Day War, to two Holocaust survivors. His sister is an ultra-orthodox former settler, whose beliefs forbid her to read his work. His brother is the founder of Israel’s movement for the legalization of marijuana and a member of the super-left-wing Anarchists Against the World.
Then there are the surreal kinks in Keret’s career. Izzat al-Ghazzawi, a Palestinian writer who died in 2003, refused to sit on the same panel as him at an event in Norway, drawing in the process an attack from French philosopher Jacques Derrida. Later, however, Izzat translated Keret’s The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God, another collection of short stories, into Arabic for the first time.

Read more:,9171,1606216,00.html#ixzz1hwQMZgod

See also Wikipedia: Etgar Keret<

Keret was born in Ramat Gan, Israel in 1967.[1] He is a third child to parents who survived the Holocaust.[2] He lives in Tel Aviv with his wife, Shira Geffen, and their son, Lev. He is a lecturer at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beer Sheva, and at Tel Aviv University.

Literary career

Keret’s first published work was Pipelines (צינורות, Tzinorot, 1992), a collection of short stories which was largely ignored when it came out. His second book, Missing Kissinger (געגועיי לקיסינג’ר, Ga’aguai le-Kissinger, 1994), a collection of fifty very short stories, caught the attention of the general public. The short story “Siren”, which deals with the paradoxes of modern Israeli society, is included in the curriculum for the Israeli matriculation exam in literature.
Keret has co-authored several comic books, among them Nobody Said It Was Going to Be Fun (לא באנו ליהנות, Lo banu leihanot, 1996) with Rutu Modan and Streets of Fury (סמטאות הזעם, Simtaot Hazaam, 1997) with Asaf Hanuka. In 1999, five of his stories were translated into English, and adapted into “graphic novellas” under the joint title Jetlag. The illustrators were the five members of the Actus Tragicus collective.
In 1998, Keret published Kneller’s Happy Campers (הקייטנה של קנלר, Hakaytana Shel Kneller), a collection of short stories. The title story, the longest in the collection, follows a young man who commits suicide and goes on a quest for love in the afterlife. It appears in the English language collection of Keret’s stories The Bus Driver Who Wanted To Be God & Other Stories (2004) and was adapted into the graphic novel Pizzeria Kamikaze (2006), with illustrations by Asaf Hanuka. Keret’s latest short story collection in Hebrew is Anihu (אניהו, literally I-am-him, 2002; translated into English as Cheap Moon, after one of the other stories in the collection).
Keret also wrote a children’s book Dad Runs Away with the Circus (2004), illustrated by Rutu Modan.
Keret publishes some of his works on the Hebrew-language web site “Bimah Hadashah” (New Stage)….

Here is another short story, Pipes:

Pipes, at Middlestage


When I got to seventh grade, they had a psychologist come to school and put us through a bunch of adjustment tests. He showed me twenty different flashcards, one by one, and asked me what was wrong with the pictures. They all seemed fine to me, but he insisted and showed me the first picture again—the one with the kid in it. “What’s wrong with this picture?” he asked in a tired voice. I told him the picture seemed fine. He got really mad and said, “Can’t you see the boy in the picture doesn’t have any ears?” The truth is that when I looked at the picture again, I did see that the kid had no ears. But the picture still seemed fine to me. The psychologist classed me as “suffering from severe perceptual disorders,” and had me transferred to carpentry school. When I got there, it turned out I was allergic to sawdust, so they transferred me to metalworking class. I was pretty good at it, but I didn’t really enjoy it. To tell the truth, I didn’t really enjoy anything in particular. When I finished school, I started working in a factory that made pipes. My boss was an engineer with a diploma from a top technical college. A brilliant guy. If you showed him a picture of a kid without ears or something like that, he’d figure it out in no time.

After work I’d stay on at the factory and make myself odd-shaped pipes, winding ones that looked like curled-up snakes, and I’d roll marbles through them. I know it sounds like a dumb thing to do, and I didn’t even enjoy it, but I went on doing it anyway.

One night I made a pipe that was really complicated, with lots of twists and turns in it, and when I rolled a marble in, it didn’t come out at the other end. At first I thought it was just stuck in the middle, but after I tried it with about twenty more marbles, I realized they were simply disappearing. I know that everything I say sounds kind of stupid. I mean everyone knows that marbles don’t just disappear, but when I saw the marbles go in at one end of the pipe and not come out at the other end, it didn’t even strike me as strange. It seemed perfectly ok actually. That was when I decided to make myself a bigger pipe, in the same shape, and to crawl into it until I disappeared. When the idea came to me, I was so happy that I started laughing out loud. I think it was the first time in my entire life that I laughed.

From that day on, I worked on my giant pipe. Every evening I’d work on it, and in the morning I’d hide the parts in the storeroom. It took me twenty days to finish making it. On the last night it took me five hours to assemble it, and it took up about half the shop floor.

When I saw it all in one piece, waiting for me, I remembered my social studies teacher who said once that the first human being to use a club wasn’t the strongest person in his tribe or the smartest. It’s just that the others didn’t need club, while he did. He needed a club more than anyone, to survive and to make up for being weak. I don’t think there was another human being in the whole world who wanted to disappear more than I did, and that’s why it was me that invented the pipe. Me, and not that brilliant engineer with his technical college degree who runs the factory.

I started crawling inside the pipe, with no idea about what to expect at the other end. Maybe there would be kids there without ears, sitting on mounds of marbles. Could be. I don’t know exactly what happened after I passed a certain point in the pipe. All I know is that I’m here.

I think I’m an angel now. I mean, I’ve got wings, and this circle over my head and there are hundreds more here like me. When I got here they were sitting around playing with the marbles I’d rolled through the pipe a few weeks earlier.

I always used to think that Heaven is a place for people who’ve spent their whole life being good, but it isn’t. God is too merciful and kind to make a decision like that. Heaven is simply a place for people who were genuinely unable to be happy on earth. They told me here that people who kill themselves return to live their life all over again, because the fact that they didn’t like it the first time doesn’t mean they won’t fit in the second time. But the ones who really don’t fit in the world wind up here. They each have their own way of getting to Heaven.

There are pilots who got here by performing a loop at one precise point in the Bermuda Triangle. There are housewives who went through the back of their kitchen cabinets to get here, and mathematicians who found topological distortions in space and had to squeeze through them to get here. So if you’re really unhappy down there, and if all kinds of people are telling you that you’re suffering from severe perceptual disorders, look for your own way of getting here, and when you find it, could you please bring some cards, cause we’re getting pretty tired of the marbles.

Also funny (in the way that truth is often funny and always refreshing) is this gem:

December 26, 2011
Posted by Deborah Treisman
The author of “Creative Writing,” this week’s story, talks to the magazine’s fiction editor.

Your story “Creative Writing” is told, for the most part, through stories that are written by its two main characters—a married couple, Maya and Aviad. Why did you choose to present their relationship in this layered, or abstracted, way?

As a suppressed person, who has learned many of things he knows about himself from stories he’s written, I thought it would be interesting to create a couple of characters who were just as fucked up as I am.

How literally should we take the metaphor? Has Maya, like the characters in her first story, split herself in half, following her miscarriage? Has she, like the woman in her second story, fallen out of love with her husband? Is the child she’s carrying, as in the third story, possibly not her husband’s? Has Aviad been transformed, like the hero of his story, into something he never meant to be?

My father said to me once, “In half of your stories the father character dies and in the other half he is just plain stupid, but in all of them I feel that you love me.” I think many stories say something that is more complex, ambiguous, and contradictory than just a clear, if coded, message. I really don’t know if Maya has fallen out of love with her husband or is just afraid that she has, or, maybe, is actually afraid that her husband has stopped loving her. I don’t know that because Maya herself doesn’t. If she knew herself and her feelings so well, I believe she would have chosen a more pragmatic hobby than writing.

If we’re meant to learn about Maya from her stories, it’s interesting that she doesn’t tell them from her own perspective. The second two, at least, are told from a husband’s point of view. Why is that?

When I write a story, I am all the characters in it. I can’t write a character I don’t feel some emotional identification with, even if it is the hired killer who murders the protagonist’s pregnant wife. Since all those characters exist in my head, they have to be me, in some sense, to have a “real” body in the story world. And since they are all me, I have no favorites, so I can pick the character with the most interesting point of view in the story as my narrator or hero. Maya does exactly the same thing: What better way to tell a story of a woman who has given birth to a kitten than from the suspicious husband’s perspective?

Do you think you’ll come back to these characters at some point and find an ending for them?

I rarely return to characters. My characters, at least most of them, are much more a part of that superorganism that is the story than separate and independent creatures.

You mentioned that Maya’s writing instructor is partly based on you. Have you taught creative writing? Have you had to deal with the jealous husbands of any of your students?

I’ve met quite a few of my students’ husbands and if I sensed jealousy it was due not to any romantic suspicions but to the literary intimacy that I shared with their wives. If I and a loving husband happen to disagree about a story’s ending, the student might go with my suggestion, solely on the grounds that I am an expert. Yet that loving husband feels that he is an expert too, an expert on his wife’s biography and emotional world. And he has a point—I do lack that expertise. I have to admit that talking authoritatively about my students’ stories can make me feel, at times, like an astronaut who has just landed on a new planet and insists on giving guided tours to its inhabitants.

You tend to write very short stories—often, like “Creative Writing,” they are two thousand words or less. What is it about that length—or brevity—that appeals to you?

It has nothing to do with appeal. This is the only way I know how to write.

You have also written and directed movies. Do you think that the compact nature of screenplay dialogue has had an effect on your fiction?

I think the biggest impact that filmmaking has had on my writing has to do with the stories’ mise-en-scène. Before I started to make films, I didn’t give much thought to the way the characters were physically positioned in the story world. Learning on set the effect that different mise-en-scènes can have on the energy of a scene, and even on its actual meaning, made me want to use some of my film director’s “tools” on my prose characters.

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Observer writer manages worldly with actual feeling

David Saracino balances urban restraint with touch of humanity in sketch of gym adventure

Exercises both body and heart, a little

Go to Body by Rikers: Getting to Know My Trainer, The Ex- and Future Con -‘I’m going to make you a monster …’ for a fine piece by Daniel D’Addario, who seems to be on the staff of the Observer, though unconfined by its editorial pose of insider cool.

Here we have literary proof that the superficial power chat rag may have something to contribute after all about real life and real human beings capable of recording their real feelings ie actual sympathy for others amid the grotesque superannuated adolescent denial and self concealment of modern Manhattan strivers for the top. And isn’t that what writing is really for – to reveal the inner world we all live in behind the mask? Here however it has to peep through a very big mask, which is de rigeur at the Observer. But D’Addario gets the message through.


A few months after I became a member of a cheap gym in Hell’s Kitchen, it dawned on me I had visited the place only once—when I signed up. I needed professional help.

The trainer occupies an odd position in our lives: despite often being someone you would have never met outside of the gym, he’s privy to your tenderest intimacies and physical vulnerabilities. Like a parent or spouse, he criticizes your smoking, drinking and eating habits, and you actually feel guilty. You’re his boss, sort of, but he’s also yours.

I’d long thought of trainers as an indulgence of the well-to-do. Paying someone to perfect my body seemed a sexy soupçon of vanity and sloth, as decadent as having a private chef. Then again, I told myself, maybe my suffering would lend the endeavor just enough wholesomeness to preserve my radicalism. Plus, the first session was free.

“Do you work out?” my taskmaster, Bashar, asked me, 15 minutes into our introductory session, as I struggled to bench-press the bar. Since I had not done anything more strenuous, for years, than bounce along on the elliptical for the duration of a medium-length Terry Gross interview and two Rihanna singles, I lied.

He laughed. “You’re crazy. I never meet anyone like you.”

He was 33, the son of Palestinian immigrants. He was sinewy, a lean, healthy looking alternative to the Pumping Iron vogue that—news flash, gym-absentees—still hasn’t gone away. He noticed my Observer T-shirt and asked if I was a writer, and if I could write about him for “a paper people read,” like the Daily News. When I demurred, he proposed that I help him create his own magazine instead. This was the only power I had over him—the power of the pen—and he piled on more reps each time I expressed reluctance about these projects.

“I’m going to make you a monster,” he would say.

In my daily life, the idea of exposing myself to five minutes of conversation, to say nothing of an hour of criticism, from someone like Bashar would have been unthinkable. I try not to throw up around anyone, certainly not during daytime hours. I don’t talk about the circumference of my arms.

But there’s something thrilling about paying someone to yell at you, a structured reminder of one’s frailty. Soon I was working out with Bashar twice a week. He asked me what rappers I liked, then mocked what I thought was a very credible answer. We had a camaraderie, though he laughed harder than I would have preferred whenever I sat backward on a piece of exercise machinery. And I didn’t love the way he took breaks to do his own reps or jokingly admire his physique in the mirror while asking me my opinion. These were the moments when I questioned who was in charge: was I really paying to watch Bashar preen, and to feel humiliatingly inadequate? He seemed to sense when he had gone too far, bringing me a bottle of water. “We gotta help each other, you and me.”

Sure, I’d think. Whatever.

“Are you on my side, or the other side?” Bashar asked me one day while I struggled to do a push-up.

I asked him what he meant. “Most people in this gym, you know, they for the other side,” he replied. Oh. The other side. I’d seen, though not intercepted, the long gazes in the locker room. I knew what he meant, and told him which side I was on. Had I ever even tried to be straight? he wondered. No, never, I said. “So how do you know, then?” He seemed to think maybe he could help me.

This was the point when the contrived intimacies of the trainer-client relationship went from useful to annoying. I realized why I chose to share my personal life with people I liked and trusted, and kept everyone else at arm’s length. Bashar had more control over my body than anyone with whom I’d never discussed what a good baby name “Eliot” is. So this is what he thought of me? Every time I started to rattle off my gay-rights talking points, he’d laugh and say, “Gimme another set!” When I pressed him further, he offered a revelation of his own: he couldn’t be prejudiced, he said, after what he’d seen in prison.

This was unexpected. I held on to just enough anger to make it through 12 reps. This, he told me, was why he’d needed me to write an article about him—to keep him from being sent back to jail. I couldn’t do that, I knew, but now he had my attention.

Later, I decided to meet Bashar outside the gym and hear more about his past. At a midtown Starbucks, he told me that, as a child, he was “the only Arab in Washington Heights. … Everybody looked at my family as aliens. And me as well.” To fit in with his neighbors, he said, he started hanging out in a drug dealer’s apartment at 13, and ended up running errands and eventually selling drugs for him. “I think it’s called being a product of your environment,” he said. He sold cocaine, but ever used only marijuana and ecstasy, he said.

He set out on his own at 16, running the corner of 154th and Broadway. As an outsider, he had an intuitive sense of how to pit gangs of different races against one another. Eventually, though, he sold drugs to an undercover cop. He did eight months at Rikers, where he allied with black gangs though he speaks Spanish. “The Middle East is actually located in Africa,” he told me, triumphantly.

His parents didn’t approve of his exploits, though they accepted the money he earned from dealing. They didn’t speak English, he told me, and had come to America only because his uncle told them there was gold in the streets.

Thanks to their acceptance of money, Bashar’s next arrest led his parents, his brother and his sister to be arrested, too; his mom and dad each did a year for money laundering. He took a deal for nine years at age 21. His lawyer told him, “At the end of the day, whether you go to trial or not, I’ll still be playing golf.” People had told him he needed to “hold it down” in jail, and protect himself from being raped. “But when I went upstate [to Five Points Correctional Facility], you gave respect, you got respect.” He was scrawny when he entered prison, but started working out with the help of fellow inmates. The physique he spent so much time gazing at in the mirror while I struggled was not a cosmetic choice but a form of armor. No wonder he told me I needed to become a “monster”; he’d had to do the same.

In the years since his release from prison, Bashar had a difficult time finding work. Bally and Equinox wouldn’t hire him, but my smaller, independent gym did. “I started helping people,” he said, noting that he had been inspired to train by his grandmother’s struggle to touch her toes, a struggle I shared.

So training me was part of his own self-improvement regimen? That felt a little too The Help for me. I asked him if it bothered him to have a gay client. “Everybody’s just there to get healthy and get big,” he said. “We just on different boats.” You give respect, you get respect.

Soon he’d be going to jail on another conviction, as an accessory to drug dealing. He’s scheduled to return to prison on Nov. 30, for a minimum of 57 months.

“I’ve accomplished so much now, and if I go back, what?” He sounded for the first time despondent. “Start all over again?”

I’ve stopped going to the gym since the Starbucks meeting. Chalk it up to a mix of mild early-winter depression, discomfort with watching Bashar work in his last days as a free man, and guilt that even writing an article wouldn’t do him any good. I told him I’d text him a day for our next training session, but instead found myself fielding texts from him: “What happen to u?”

I feel like I’ve gained a little weight, backslid a little. Not that I’m complaining. A few pounds will be the lightest thing either Bashar or I have borne.

Less is more, as they say.

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Department of preciousness, New Yorker style

There was as we recall a satirical takeoff of the New Yorker a decade or two ago, and the sheer ineffable authority the magazine gains from its pose of gentlemanly, raised-monocle distance from its topics can sometimes make its columns seem to satirize themselves (God forbid it should explicitly take sides on the sometimes earth shaking issues it covers – it never does, thus influencing readers more than ever).

Here’s a classic specimen of this utter lack of self consciousness as it carries preciousness to a rarified height where the air is too thin to retain a sense of humor about itself, perpetrated in its roundup of brief book reviews head Briefly Noted in its October 10, 2011.

Touch, by Henry Cole )(Farrar, Straus & Giroux $23), Like the messianic Walt Whitman (“I make holy whatever I touch”), Henri Cole has spent his career tallying ecstatic and multifarious encounters with physical reality. Such encounters permeate this sumptuous new collection of poems, in which Cole is to be found addressing a pig, a strand of seaweed, and even a mosquito. A characteristic tone of awed ingenuousness (“you gave me a nice bite; I hope I didn’t rip your wing off,/pushing you away”) is one Cole has leared from Blake and Bishop, though he also keeps an ear to the ground of contemporary speech, describing a torrential downpour as “rain on steroids”.” Cole is known for his hair-raising erotic intimacy (in an earlier volume , we get a glimpse of his “delicately striated, crepelike scrotum”), but these poems are emphatically universal. “How can I/defend myself against what I want?” Cole asks with voluptuous candor, and leaves it to us to infer the answer. He can’t , and neither can we.

One wonder who wrote this evidence of a divorce from reality that must be difficult to achieve with the most sheltered background deep in the bosom of the well financed upper-middle class that seems to be the target audience as well as the happy mentality of the staff. Perhaps some intern of bookish nature who has not ventured on the city street for very long except to commute from his or her tiny Williamsburg share.

In a world wracked with catastrophe and personal calamity one can only be grateful that there exists a backwater where the most precious sensibility can reign undisturbed.

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Purity of the spoken word from Vietnam – or a lie?

A truly remarkable book on Vietnam, Everything We Had by Al Santoli, is a group of interviews with those who served and survived that purposeless mess – subtitle “An Oral History of the Vietnam War By Thirty-Three American Soldiers Who Fought It.” Their lightly edited prose has the natural directness and black humor of heartfelt truth throughout, and are moving and vivid because of it.

From the point of view of literary quality this collection shows how powerful verbal accounts can be if they are from no-nonsense men looking back on life-or-death experiences in war. The ideology which was supposed to justify and motivate them rubbed thinner and thinner over time, as it was replaced by the reality of Vietnam as it really was, lethal to both sides and the population in between, and often instantly destroying whatever more enlightened actions soldiers would come up with on their own away from the front, or during a pause in fighting.

However, a warning to readers: two of the accounts are fiction, or in other words, fantasy. Or in other words, lies.

There are actually two false war stories in this book, those of Thomas Bird (“Ia Drang”) and Mike Beamon (“The Green-Faced Frogmen”). Mr. Bird apologized to the author after the book’s publication. He did serve in Vietnam, not in combat, and the POW story is a complete fabrication. Mr. Beamon did not even serve in the US military, never mind the SEALS or Vietnam. At the time the book came out, 1981, it was difficult to get veterans to discuss the war at all, never mind insist they verify their stories. Mr. Santoli, who I knew personally, was as disappointed as any of his critics that he had been taken in by these accounts. Still “Everything We Had”is a monumental work, from the days before the Vietnam Wall. Then the popular culture wanted nothing more to dismiss the war completely and held the men who fought there in contempt as losers or criminals. The feelings of Santoli’s real contributors are still a compelling read today, twenty years later.

That, at least, is the one and only customer review on Amazon, signed Lee Russell, who has done no other reviews at this time.

A good test of your literary perceptions might be to decide for yourself if the two – Thomas Bird (“Ia Drang”) and Mike Beamon (“The Green-Faced Frogmen”) – looks different in some discernible way related to whether they are true, from the other tales in the book.

Both seem to us to be far too long and colorful to be false. If they are, they serve as a revelation as to how convincing and substantial the imagination of liars can be.

But then, why wouldn’t some soldiers have the same story telling talent as good novelists?

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Patricia Pearson a comet across literary sky

Well, judging from her lovely Shouts and Murmurs in the New Yorker this week, at least. See

Humorists who appear in this delectable column often write prose more perfectly calibrated than any factual piece, but this has the added spice of being a satire on the everyday formulations of Web reviews written by real people (as opposed to plants):


by Patricia Pearson
I went to see this cave for a girls’ night out, and I have to say it was quite disappointing. For one thing, the lighting was terrible. You had to stumble around in the pitch black, and if you were lucky someone remembered to bring willow bark for the pain when you banged your face against a wall, but mostly no one had thought of that. We had to get the shaman to set fire to his own hair so that we could have a proper look, which I felt was putting too much responsibility on the audience. The walls did seem to show real mastodons and oryxes, which was pretty cool, since caves usually just look like broken rocks. But I’d recommend the spring mushroom dance as a better outing.
If you do go, bring your own pine resin and flint.

My husband and I visited this new building for our fifth wedding anniversary. We found it to be so-so. The view was fairly nice, since we’d never seen anything taller than our own foreheads before. But the sandstone turned out to be extremely dusty. At one point, we noticed a cricket running around the base, and that’s just not something you expect at a royal tomb, which supposedly offers scarab beetles, or at least that is what was described to us by Anubis in our dreams.
In our opinion, Khufu is not going to make it to Sirius in this tomb. Too dusty, bad insects.
No stars.

I took my daughter to see the Oracle for her sixteenth birthday, and, really, I did not feel that the visit was worth sacrificing a whole goat. If you’re going to predict the fall of Lydia, there should be better music. Also, the food at the entrance to the underground chamber was very substandard. The figs were withered, and I’ve found better-tasting olives under corpses. We definitely don’t plan to go back.

My son brought me to see this wall when he heard that the Mongols were planning to chop my head off with a scythe. I have to say that it’s a very reassuring defensive structure. I was imagining something more along the lines of a mound of shit, except, maybe, one that was way longer than the one in my village. But this wall turns out to be constructed of bricks and stones, which really impressed me. The nearby attractions were an added bonus, because the lines for the wall were long. If you plan it right, you can chuckle at a cripple and still get home for supper with plenty of time.

My spiritual adviser told me to take two years out of my projected twenty-seven-year life span to go on this excursion, and I’m glad I did. Off the beaten track, maybe, but definitely worth it for being permanently cleansed of the sin of envy. Previous posters to this site made me aware of the need to wear iron underpants with locked hinges, and also gave me great tips about how to ward off scurvy by gnawing on orange rinds snatched out of the paws of squirrels. My only complaint is that the Madonna could probably be more consistent in her miraculous interventions. The guy right behind me tossed away his crutches and I was, like, oh, O.K., is the Holy Mother listening now? Because I’m still a female who wants to have sex and yet weigh in on the present discourse about Purgatory, and I’m not really clear on whether I have to give up my brains and get married, or move my stuff into the cloister.

Recommended, with reservations.

My sister and I have mixed feelings about gluing mouse pelts over our eyebrows. It’s not hard to catch the mice, because they tend to nest in our hair—the Countess of Burgundy says they are attracted to the lard we use to make the lead powder stick to the curls. The problem is that it’s very hard to get their fur off. We tried gluing on just the tails, but, of course, that made us look ridiculous. So somebody needs to come up with a more user-friendly version of this technique, IMHO.

I do not recommend the Russian Revolution. At first, I fell for the hype and was kind of excited to set fire to my landlord. But now it seems like it’s just getting to be a lot of yakkety-yak. What we need is already with us, as far as I’m concerned: breathing, harvest, an icon by Andrei Rublev in our church, some carnal relations.
We have enough trouble with Baba Yaga; we don’t need men from Moscow to tell us their dreams for our children. What do they think our children are doing today? They’re catching chickens and gathering damp birch sticks. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
This customer recommends the reign of Peter the Great instead.

My name is Gladys Roche. I’ve lived at the Ocean Vista Nursing Home since 1981, and before that I kept a pretty good house in Dayton, Ohio. Sometimes there were difficulties with keeping the basement dry. But we never had a spot of mold. People seem to want to know how I survived the twentieth century, as I’m now more than a hundred years old. I think my secret is that I ate breakfast kippers most days. Also, I smoked. Would I live through the twentieth century again? Absolutely. Yes, I would. Thank heaven they invented the microwave oven. That’s just a marvel.

Two thumbs up.


Have to say that the last entry is a bit of a whimper, but never mind. This delicious work makes one laugh out loud more than one, not just smile to oneself.

Read more

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Why are humorous books about incompetence so enjoyable?

The Diary of a Nobody and Three Men in A Boat, along with Scoop, are among the most famous and widely enjoyed books in English literature, even if nobody teaches them in college classes, as far as we know.

Actually, all of them are perfectly brilliantly written so it is a pity they are not required reading everywhere.  Humor is shortchanged in accolades all over,  for example, the Oscars.  At least the Diary (by George and Weedon Grossmith, 1892 after appearing in Punch  is included in Oxford World Classic paperback series, also the home of Three Men in a Boat

Why is that?  Humor is some of the most perfectly phrased and balanced writing in the literature, often approaching poetry in the way it relies on choosing the right word every single time.  It seems charged with the same level of inspiration as poetry, where every word counts as a brushstroke in the painting of theme and mood.

In fact, Three Men in A Boat was roundly panned when it first came out in 1889. Jerome wrote in My Life and Times (1926)

“One might have imagined … that the British Empire was in danger. … The Standard spoke of me as a menace to English letters; and The Morning Post as an example of the sad results to be expected from the over-education of the lower orders. … I think I may claim to have been, for the first twenty years of my career, the best abused author in England.”

Why was it and is it so popular? Jerome Nicholas writes on

What was entirely new about Boat was the style in which it was written. Conan Doyle, Rider Haggard, Rudyard Kipling and Robert Louis Stevenson were widely read and highly popular but Jerome differed in two respects: his story was not of some fantastical adventure in a far-off land, peopled by larger-than-life heroes and villains, but of three very ordinary blokes having a high old time just down the road, so to speak; and, in an age when literary grandiloquence and solemnity were not in short supply, Jerome provided a breath of fresh air. In the preface to Idle Thoughts, Jerome had set out his stall: ‘What readers ask now-a-days in a book is that it should improve, instruct and elevate. This book wouldn’t elevate a cow.’ He used everyday figures of speech for the first time (‘colloquial clerk’s English of the year 1889’ as one critic described it) and was very, very funny. The Victorians had simply never come across anything like it.”

It was the first blow against the silly artificiality of Victorian novels and verse, then. But the reason for its popularity enduring undiminished through several very different ages remains something to define, if you ever can. One thing which is key, in our opinion, is the gentle fun made of the obvious incompetence of all three leading characters in the book.

Most humor depends on safely interrupting competence of almost any kind, returning human nature to its proper, unguarded and undressed status of ground level nude wrestling with reality in vain to make it match all the foolishness of what we construct in social fantasy – high position, self importance and all other things which adults use to pretend they are not still children at heart, and not apt to make a mistake or be exposed as foolish at any time.

This is the banana skin theory of humor and the other day we can across a reference to a man who has developed this theory to its fullest, but unfortunately we cannot now remember his name or where we read it. We hope to eventually. This is a good example of what we mean. We are revealed as dignified fools.

Anyhow, Three Men In A Boat is sublime in its gently making fun of human vanity by poking holes in its supposed competence, and incompetence breaks out on every page. You can get a free copy from Amazon on Kindle or Touchpad via its free Kindle app. You can also get Diary of a Nobody.

Jerome;s sequel is equally as good, and concerns Germany and the Germans as much as it does the adventures of the same three men on a bicycling trip through the control obsessed nation, and Jerome’s satirical comments, made well before World War I, are interesting to compare with what happened since.

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Sam Menashe’s poetic diamonds

Sam Menashe has died. Poet minimalist, he fashioned jewel-like verse as small as four brief lines, rhyme and sense interlocking like a Chinese box.

He lived like a poet, also. Amid a society where poets find refuge and succour in universities and writing conferences and from foundations and publishers he walked alone, often to be found sitting on a bench in Central Park holding forth, reciting his verse with aplomb, his clothes a little grubby and age finally creasing his handsome features without much thinning his mane of silver hair. We took portrait shots of him once for some project of his, perhaps a book, but they are lost at the moment inside some defunct drive.

After years of professional neglect he finally published a second book or two, thanks to the Poetry Foundation’s Neglected Master award in 2004. But why not more earlier? Why were his diamonds ignored, falling like pearls before swine?

Was it because he was something of a giant ego who lacked interest in others, even those who could give him membership in the club? Certainly one felt that his interest in others was minimal, because he seemed driven to confine most conversation to himself and his ideas, and declaim his verse in rotund tongue at a moment’s notice.

But literary talent never seems to be anything else in our experience. And his verse was fit for reciting any time over chitchat


For what I did

And did not do

And do without

In my old age

Rue, not rage

Against that night

We go into,

Sets me straight

On what to do

Before I die–

Sit in the shade,

Look at the sky.

We challenge you to find any work of his which was not honed to perfection, bracelets of jewels of language and insight.

Here’s his Guardian obituary , nicely done.

Samuel Menashe obituary
Poet whose intense and concise works were like psalms

By Daniel Thomas Moran, Friday 26 August 2011 07.15 EDT

The poet Samuel Menashe, who has died aged 85, was perhaps the last of the great generation of New York bohemian writers. Through a career of nearly 60 years, he traced a path that was his alone; academics and critics, unable to draw decided comparison to any of his contemporaries, were forced to reach back to the likes of Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins and William Blake.

Samuel himself resisted labels entirely and would say only that his poems were “concise”. He once recounted to me, with some delight, that on a visit to his parents in the 1950s, in the early stages of his writing, he told his mother that he had been busy working on a poem that he had read to her the previous week. She asked, “How much shorter is it?” Some years later, Stephen Spender declared that Samuel “can compress an attitude to life that has an immense history into three lines with language intense and clear as diamonds”. The poet Derek Mahon said that Samuel practised the art of “compression and crystallisation”.

He understood that, like all of us, he was the sum of his experiences, the ones which inspired and the ones which haunted. Here, for example, is Cargo, written for the poet Rachel Hadas:

Old wounds leave good hollows

Where one who goes can hold

Himself in ghostly embraces

Of former powers and graces

Whose domain no strife mars–

I am made whole by my scars

For whatever now displaces

Follows all that once was

And without loss stows

Me into my own spaces

Born in Brooklyn, New York, Samuel was raised in the borough of Queens by his Russian immigrant parents. In 1943 he left Queens College for Fort Benning, Georgia, joining the second world war war effort as an infantryman. He saw action in many places, including the Battle of the Bulge, which he always insisted be referred to it by its proper name, “The Von Rundstedt Offensive”. He nearly never spoke about the war, even to friends.

At the war’s end, he returned on the GI bill to finish his degree at Queens College and then enrolled at the Sorbonne, in Paris, where he earned his PhD in 1950. He returned to New York, where he took a few short-lived teaching jobs, including one at CW Post College. He told me that he was forced to quit for passing all of his students, who faced conscription to the war in Korea if they could not pass their classes. It was Samuel’s experiences in war which most informed his philosophy, simply to live each day as if it were the last. He never married and had no children.

Samuel’s first poem came to him in a dream and he began to wonder about poetry. He said that he “had never met a poet and never dreamed of being a poet. Poets were dead immortals.” But he continued to find his voice in poems and, after not being able to find a willing book publisher in America, he returned to Europe, making the acquaintance of the poet Kathleen Raine. She became an early champion of his work and brought it to the attention of Victor Gollancz, who published Samuel’s The Many Named Beloved in 1961.

When Samuel travelled to Majorca in the 1950s, to find Robert Graves and show him his work, Graves told him, “Young man, you are a true poet” – something that Graves reported had been said to him by Thomas Hardy. Samuel published several collections and was roundly praised by some of the finest minds in poetry, including Donald Davie, PN Furbank, Hugh Kenner, Denis Donoghue and Billy Collins. The poet Dana Gioia has stated: “The public career of Samuel Menashe demonstrates how a serious poet of singular talent, power and originality can be utterly ignored in our literary culture.”

Samuel was never known to have expressed a doubt about his own work. Living and writing for some 50 years in a walk-up tenement in Greenwich Village, he sat at a modest window-facing desk until the sun rose beyond the rooftops across Thompson Street, when he headed out into the streets, and eventually to Central Park, where he walked and met with friends until darkness fell.

The recognition he so craved was always just beyond reach until 2004, when he was awarded the first Neglected Masters award by the Poetry Foundation in Chicago. This carried with it a prize of $50,000 along with the publication of his New and Selected Poems by the Library of America, their first volume by a living poet. In his remarkable introduction to the book, Christopher Ricks wrote: “His still small voice carries. It carries weight. The poems, in the terms with which Dr Samuel Johnson honoured a 17th-century master who is now neglected (Sir John Denham), ‘convey much meaning in few words, and exhibit the sentiment with more weight than bulk’.”

Samuel was in love with language and all the subtle meanings he found in various words and idioms. They were the toys he played with, and it would delight him to juxtapose them to create deeper meanings, adorned by remarkably complex, effective and inventive patterns of rhyme and rhythm. Later in his life, he spent much time reflecting on the nature of his own mortality. His poems were often like psalms. Here is Rue:

For what I did

And did not do

And do without

In my old age

Rue, not rage

Against that night

We go into,

Sets me straight

On what to do

Before I die–

Sit in the shade,

Look at the sky

Samuel’s life was a lesson in resoluteness and indefatigable tenacity. His poems were simply the steadfast expressions of a man deeply in love with living.

• Samuel Menashe Weisberg, poet, born 16 September 1925; died 22 August 2011

Here is his Economist obit , which as the single comment has it, is a work of art, inspired, surely, by its subject:

UNTIL 2009, if you had wandered past 75 Thompson Street in SoHo, in New York City, you might have glimpsed a face at an upstairs window. It was an aristocratic face, with a shock of white hair, and it surmounted—according to the season—a chunky-knit sweater or a white Byronic shirt. This was the first clue that out of sight, level with the window sill, was a writing desk, and that at this desk, on sheets of unruled paper in blue felt-tip pen, Samuel Menashe was writing poems.

Inklings sans ink

Cling to the dry

Point of the pen

Whose stem I mouth

Not knowing when

The truth will out.

They were very short poems. Many were only four lines long. He began with more, but then worked to make them as concise as possible. They were honed down to the essence, sculpted like stones. He left them on scraps of paper all over the apartment.

A flock of little boats

Tethered to the shore

Drifts in still water

Prows dip, nibbling

Others were not so good. And some, he thought, were no more than sighs, like the one he once wrote on the sand of an Irish beach for the tide to take away.

Pity us

Beside the sea

On the sands

So briefly

There were rhyme schemes in his work, but usually just the sort that cropped up in ordinary speech. He liked plumbing the throwaway phrases of everyday life: “on the level”, “come to grief”, “at my wits’ end”. The influences on him, he supposed, were mostly Blake, Shakespeare and the King James Bible (though he was Jewish, he did not know Hebrew). He called his poems psalms and sonnets, though he never consciously wrote in either form. Instead, sitting at his desk, he pared and pared.

The hollow of morning

Holds my soul still

As water in a jar

When he told his mother he was working on a poem he had shown her, she would ask: “How much shorter is it?” But then it was she who, years ago, had told him to consider the beauty of a tree in its bareness, not its leaves.

He wrote several poems about lying under trees, gazing at the light and shade.

Branches spoke

This cupola

Whose leaf inlay

Keeps the sun at bay

Most of those trees were in Central Park. He walked there in the afternoons, reciting to himself and memorising, until he could watch the sinking sun igniting the windows of the city. He was a native New Yorker, born in Brooklyn to parents in the dry-cleaning business, and he had lived alone in his cold-water apartment up five flights (“these stone steps/bevelled by feet”) since he was 31. The paint was peeling, and books were piled everywhere: on window sills, on top of cupboards. “Hard covers melt/Welcome the sun…”

His kitchen contained a claw-foot bath, a stove and a table. He heated up his breakfast Quick Oats there, but otherwise ate at Homer’s Diner (“There’s no place like Homer’s”). Shadowing the French poets he was fond of (he had studied at the Sorbonne after his wartime infantry service, and could quote Baudelaire at length) he was a flâneur des boulevards, mostly at night. He would glance into the park,

As armed trees frisk a windfall

Down paths that lampposts light

Fingering the skull

He had never intended to become a poet. His major was in biochemistry. But then he had woken up in the middle of the night, in Paris in 1949, with a line in his head:

All my life when I woke up at night

And that was that. The next 62 years were spent on poetry. To him his works seemed man-sized, populating his apartment, continually demanding a smoothing here, a chiselling there. To change “the crinkled leaf of spring” to “spring’s crinkled leaf” was a massive decision. Each word weighed heavy, and when he came to recite them (knowing them all by heart) they filled his mouth, sonorous and huge.

A pot poured out

Fulfills its spout

There was no money in it, of course. He had to teach a bit, or work on cruise ships. The literary magazines took a few of his poems. He struggled to get published anywhere, though Kathleen Raine and Stephen Spender took a shine to him in the 1960s, and Penguin published him in 1996. He would shift Ted Hughes along in Border’s, to give himself room on the shelf. The big established American poets seemed to him like medieval abbots visiting each other, while he remained a hermit outside the walls. He worked with a hand propping his head, feeling his skull as a memento mori.

Alone in my lair

With one bone to pick

And no time to spare

The critical world, in so far as it noticed, was divided about him. His poems were either crystalline and profound, or slight and banal. Whichever was true, he laboured on. In 2004 America’s Poetry Foundation gave him its first Neglected Masters Award. He said he deserved it, and so he did: the unresting representative of thousands of other dogged and neglected poets, scribbling and dreaming at their windows in all the cities of the world.

Here is the New York Times effort, a touch less appreciative:

Samuel Menashe, New York Poet of Short Verse, Dies at 85

Samuel Menashe, a Greenwich Village poet whose jewel-like, gnomic short verse won him an ardent following in Britain and belated recognition in the United States when the Poetry Foundation gave him its first Neglected Masters Award in 2004, died on Monday in Manhattan. He was 85.

The cause was complications of heart disease, Nicholas Birns, a literary critic and friend, said.

Mr. Menashe (pronounced men-AHSH) specialized in very short, often unpunctuated poems of less than 10 lines, with a religious or metaphysical bent. The British scholar P. N. Furbank called them “perfect little mechanisms, minute cathedrals.”

In “The Niche,” included in his 2000 collection “The Niche Narrows,” Mr. Menashe limited himself to four lines:

The niche narrows

Hones one thin

Until his bones

Disclose him

Although his poems appeared with some regularity in journals like Partisan Review and The New Yorker, he wrote and lived as a bohemian, and throughout his career encountered difficulties in finding a book publisher.

His first poetry collections appeared in Britain, where poets like Kathleen Raine and Donald Davie championed his cause, and his work was included in the influential series Penguin Modern Poets. It was Ms. Raine, a poet and critic at Cambridge University, who brought his work to the attention of Victor Gollancz, who published “The Many Named Beloved” in 1961.

In 1971, “No Jerusalem but This,” a collection of poems on Jewish themes, became his first book to be published in the United States. Stephen Spender wrote in The New York Review of Books that nothing was more remarkable about Mr. Menashe than “the fact that his poetry goes so little remarked.”

“Here is a poet who compresses thoughts and sensations into language intense and clear as diamonds.”

Samuel Menashe Weisberg was born on Sept. 16, 1925, in Brooklyn and grew up in Elmhurst, Queens, where his father, a Jewish immigrant from Russia, ran a laundry and dry-cleaning business.

He enrolled in Queens College but left in 1943 to enlist in the Army. As an infantryman with the 87th Division, he fought his way through France, Belgium and Germany. In a single day during the Battle of the Bulge, all but 29 members of his company of 190 men were either killed, wounded or taken prisoner.

“When I came back, I heard people talking about what they were going to do next summer,” he told The New York Times in 2003. “I was amazed that they could talk of that future, next summer. As a result, I lived in the day. For the first few years after the war, each day was the last day. And then it changed. Each day was the only day.”

He returned to Queens College but left without taking a degree and sailed to France, where he earned a degree at the Sorbonne in 1950.

He began his writing career with stories drawn from his childhood and his wartime experiences, but he instinctively found his way to poetry. “One night, I woke up in the middle of the night and a poem started,” he told National Public Radio in 2006.

His first poem was published in The Yale Review in 1956, the year he moved into his apartment on Thompson Street, where he lived until entering an assisted-living institution in 2010. He leaves no immediate survivors.

Although he taught literature at Bard and C. W. Post College for short periods in the 1950s and 1960s, Mr. Menashe remained largely outside the academic world, the usual support system for American poets. Instead, he worked a motley assortment of pickup jobs: tour guide on Gray Line buses, French tutor, lecturer on cruise ships.

“Most editors do not read poetry,” he told the reference work Contemporary Authors in 1984. “The poetry editor is almost invariably the house poet or a person who is working with the interlocking directorate of establishment poets. Government censorship could not be more effective, but here you can’t be sent to Siberia — you are just kept out of print.”

His poetry collections included “Fringe of Fire” (1973), “To Open” (1974) and “Collected Poems,” which the National Poetry Foundation published in 1986. After he received the Neglected Masters Award, the Library of America published the collection “Samuel Menashe: New and Selected Poems” in 2005, with an introduction by Christopher Ricks, another of his British admirers.

Mr. Menashe regarded the attention with appreciation but without excess humility. “When one gets what one deserves, it’s a wonderful thing,” he said on receiving the Poetry Foundation Prize and the $50,000 check that accompanied it.

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Drew Westen pinpoints key human need – tell stories, Obama!

Look at this cliche ridden piece by a psychology professor at Emory for a passable statement of why Presidents (and everybody else in dealing with others) should tell stories, What Happened to Obama?, which appeared on Sunday Aug 7 (that’s yesterday).

IT was a blustery day in Washington on Jan. 20, 2009, as it often seems to be on the day of a presidential inauguration. As I stood with my 8-year-old daughter, watching the president deliver his inaugural address, I had a feeling of unease. It wasn’t just that the man who could be so eloquent had seemingly chosen not to be on this auspicious occasion, although that turned out to be a troubling harbinger of things to come. It was that there was a story the American people were waiting to hear — and needed to hear — but he didn’t tell it. And in the ensuing months he continued not to tell it, no matter how outrageous the slings and arrows his opponents threw at him.

The stories our leaders tell us matter, probably almost as much as the stories our parents tell us as children, because they orient us to what is, what could be, and what should be; to the worldviews they hold and to the values they hold sacred. Our brains evolved to “expect” stories with a particular structure, with protagonists and villains, a hill to be climbed or a battle to be fought. Our species existed for more than 100,000 years before the earliest signs of literacy, and another 5,000 years would pass before the majority of humans would know how to read and write.

Stories were the primary way our ancestors transmitted knowledge and values. Today we seek movies, novels and “news stories” that put the events of the day in a form that our brains evolved to find compelling and memorable. Children crave bedtime stories; the holy books of the three great monotheistic religions are written in parables; and as research in cognitive science has shown, lawyers whose closing arguments tell a story win jury trials against their legal adversaries who just lay out “the facts of the case.”

It goes on with the rest of the piece in equally turgid terms, and we hasten to add that this is NOT an example of good writing.  We are simply saying the thought is a good one for all writers to contemplate.

Whether the rest is a good idea or not is up to you to decide.  We find it unreadable. Hot stuff?  If it was better written, we would gather twenty bearers and six elephants and fight through the verbal undergrowth to its conclusion over the next three weeks, but we don’t have the energy right now.

What is it about the Times that renders prose so unreadable?  One suspects it is the fault of the editors, who must get getting older than they ever have been if they are not hiring new ones.

When Barack Obama rose to the lectern on Inauguration Day, the nation was in tatters. Americans were scared and angry. The economy was spinning in reverse. Three-quarters of a million people lost their jobs that month. Many had lost their homes, and with them the only nest eggs they had. Even the usually impervious upper middle class had seen a decade of stagnant or declining investment, with the stock market dropping in value with no end in sight. Hope was as scarce as credit.

In that context, Americans needed their president to tell them a story that made sense of what they had just been through, what caused it, and how it was going to end. They needed to hear that he understood what they were feeling, that he would track down those responsible for their pain and suffering, and that he would restore order and safety. What they were waiting for, in broad strokes, was a story something like this:

“I know you’re scared and angry. Many of you have lost your jobs, your homes, your hope. This was a disaster, but it was not a natural disaster. It was made by Wall Street gamblers who speculated with your lives and futures. It was made by conservative extremists who told us that if we just eliminated regulations and rewarded greed and recklessness, it would all work out. But it didn’t work out. And it didn’t work out 80 years ago, when the same people sold our grandparents the same bill of goods, with the same results. But we learned something from our grandparents about how to fix it, and we will draw on their wisdom. We will restore business confidence the old-fashioned way: by putting money back in the pockets of working Americans by putting them back to work, and by restoring integrity to our financial markets and demanding it of those who want to run them. I can’t promise that we won’t make mistakes along the way. But I can promise you that they will be honest mistakes, and that your government has your back again.” A story isn’t a policy. But that simple narrative — and the policies that would naturally have flowed from it — would have inoculated against much of what was to come in the intervening two and a half years of failed government, idled factories and idled hands. That story would have made clear that the president understood that the American people had given Democrats the presidency and majorities in both houses of Congress to fix the mess the Republicans and Wall Street had made of the country, and that this would not be a power-sharing arrangement. It would have made clear that the problem wasn’t tax-and-spend liberalism or the deficit — a deficit that didn’t exist until George W. Bush gave nearly $2 trillion in tax breaks largely to the wealthiest Americans and squandered $1 trillion in two wars.

And perhaps most important, it would have offered a clear, compelling alternative to the dominant narrative of the right, that our problem is not due to spending on things like the pensions of firefighters, but to the fact that those who can afford to buy influence are rewriting the rules so they can cut themselves progressively larger slices of the American pie while paying less of their fair share for it.

But there was no story — and there has been none since.

In similar circumstances, Franklin D. Roosevelt offered Americans a promise to use the power of his office to make their lives better and to keep trying until he got it right. Beginning in his first inaugural address, and in the fireside chats that followed, he explained how the crash had happened, and he minced no words about those who had caused it. He promised to do something no president had done before: to use the resources of the United States to put Americans directly to work, building the infrastructure we still rely on today. He swore to keep the people who had caused the crisis out of the halls of power, and he made good on that promise. In a 1936 speech at Madison Square Garden, he thundered, “Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me — and I welcome their hatred.”

When Barack Obama stepped into the Oval Office, he stepped into a cycle of American history, best exemplified by F.D.R. and his distant cousin, Teddy. After a great technological revolution or a major economic transition, as when America changed from a nation of farmers to an urban industrial one, there is often a period of great concentration of wealth, and with it, a concentration of power in the wealthy. That’s what we saw in 1928, and that’s what we see today. At some point that power is exercised so injudiciously, and the lives of so many become so unbearable, that a period of reform ensues — and a charismatic reformer emerges to lead that renewal. In that sense, Teddy Roosevelt started the cycle of reform his cousin picked up 30 years later, as he began efforts to bust the trusts and regulate the railroads, exercise federal power over the banks and the nation’s food supply, and protect America’s land and wildlife, creating the modern environmental movement.

Those were the shoes — that was the historic role — that Americans elected Barack Obama to fill. The president is fond of referring to “the arc of history,” paraphrasing the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous statement that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But with his deep-seated aversion to conflict and his profound failure to understand bully dynamics — in which conciliation is always the wrong course of action, because bullies perceive it as weakness and just punch harder the next time — he has broken that arc and has likely bent it backward for at least a generation.

When Dr. King spoke of the great arc bending toward justice, he did not mean that we should wait for it to bend. He exhorted others to put their full weight behind it, and he gave his life speaking with a voice that cut through the blistering force of water cannons and the gnashing teeth of police dogs. He preached the gospel of nonviolence, but he knew that whether a bully hid behind a club or a poll tax, the only effective response was to face the bully down, and to make the bully show his true and repugnant face in public.

IN contrast, when faced with the greatest economic crisis, the greatest levels of economic inequality, and the greatest levels of corporate influence on politics since the Depression, Barack Obama stared into the eyes of history and chose to avert his gaze. Instead of indicting the people whose recklessness wrecked the economy, he put them in charge of it. He never explained that decision to the public — a failure in storytelling as extraordinary as the failure in judgment behind it. Had the president chosen to bend the arc of history, he would have told the public the story of the destruction wrought by the dismantling of the New Deal regulations that had protected them for more than half a century. He would have offered them a counternarrative of how to fix the problem other than the politics of appeasement, one that emphasized creating economic demand and consumer confidence by putting consumers back to work. He would have had to stare down those who had wrecked the economy, and he would have had to tolerate their hatred if not welcome it. But the arc of his temperament just didn’t bend that far.

The truly decisive move that broke the arc of history was his handling of the stimulus. The public was desperate for a leader who would speak with confidence, and they were ready to follow wherever the president led. Yet instead of indicting the economic policies and principles that had just eliminated eight million jobs, in the most damaging of the tic-like gestures of compromise that have become the hallmark of his presidency — and against the advice of multiple Nobel-Prize-winning economists — he backed away from his advisers who proposed a big stimulus, and then diluted it with tax cuts that had already been shown to be inert. The result, as predicted in advance, was a half-stimulus that half-stimulated the economy. That, in turn, led the White House to feel rightly unappreciated for having saved the country from another Great Depression but in the unenviable position of having to argue a counterfactual — that something terrible might have happened had it not half-acted.

To the average American, who was still staring into the abyss, the half-stimulus did nothing but prove that Ronald Reagan was right, that government is the problem. In fact, the average American had no idea what Democrats were trying to accomplish by deficit spending because no one bothered to explain it to them with the repetition and evocative imagery that our brains require to make an idea, particularly a paradoxical one, “stick.” Nor did anyone explain what health care reform was supposed to accomplish (other than the unbelievable and even more uninspiring claim that it would “bend the cost curve”), or why “credit card reform” had led to an increase in the interest rates they were already struggling to pay. Nor did anyone explain why saving the banks was such a priority, when saving the homes the banks were foreclosing didn’t seem to be. All Americans knew, and all they know today, is that they’re still unemployed, they’re still worried about how they’re going to pay their bills at the end of the month and their kids still can’t get a job. And now the Republicans are chipping away at unemployment insurance, and the president is making his usual impotent verbal exhortations after bargaining it away.

What makes the “deficit debate” we just experienced seem so surreal is how divorced the conversation in Washington has been from conversations around the kitchen table everywhere else in America. Although I am a scientist by training, over the last several years, as a messaging consultant to nonprofit groups and Democratic leaders, I have studied the way voters think and feel, talking to them in plain language. At this point, I have interacted in person or virtually with more than 50,000 Americans on a range of issues, from taxes and deficits to abortion and immigration.

The average voter is far more worried about jobs than about the deficit, which few were talking about while Bush and the Republican Congress were running it up. The conventional wisdom is that Americans hate government, and if you ask the question in the abstract, people will certainly give you an earful about what government does wrong. But if you give them the choice between cutting the deficit and putting Americans back to work, it isn’t even close. But it’s not just jobs. Americans don’t share the priorities of either party on taxes, budgets or any of the things Congress and the president have just agreed to slash — or failed to slash, like subsidies to oil companies. When it comes to tax cuts for the wealthy, Americans are united across the political spectrum, supporting a message that says, “In times like these, millionaires ought to be giving to charity, not getting it.”

When pitted against a tough budget-cutting message straight from the mouth of its strongest advocates, swing voters vastly preferred a message that began, “The best way to reduce the deficit is to put Americans back to work.” This statement is far more consistent with what many economists are saying publicly — and what investors apparently believe, as evident in the nosedive the stock market took after the president and Congress “saved” the economy.

So where does that leave us?

Like most Americans, at this point, I have no idea what Barack Obama — and by extension the party he leads — believes on virtually any issue. The president tells us he prefers a “balanced” approach to deficit reduction, one that weds “revenue enhancements” (a weak way of describing popular taxes on the rich and big corporations that are evading them) with “entitlement cuts” (an equally poor choice of words that implies that people who’ve worked their whole lives are looking for handouts). But the law he just signed includes only the cuts. This pattern of presenting inconsistent positions with no apparent recognition of their incoherence is another hallmark of this president’s storytelling. He announces in a speech on energy and climate change that we need to expand offshore oil drilling and coal production — two methods of obtaining fuels that contribute to the extreme weather Americans are now seeing. He supports a health care law that will use Medicaid to insure about 15 million more Americans and then endorses a budget plan that, through cuts to state budgets, will most likely decimate Medicaid and other essential programs for children, senior citizens and people who are vulnerable by virtue of disabilities or an economy that is getting weaker by the day. He gives a major speech on immigration reform after deporting around 800,000 immigrants in two years, a pace faster than nearly any other period in American history.

THE real conundrum is why the president seems so compelled to take both sides of every issue, encouraging voters to project whatever they want on him, and hoping they won’t realize which hand is holding the rabbit. That a large section of the country views him as a socialist while many in his own party are concluding that he does not share their values speaks volumes — but not the volumes his advisers are selling: that if you make both the right and left mad, you must be doing something right.

As a practicing psychologist with more than 25 years of experience, I will resist the temptation to diagnose at a distance, but as a scientist and strategic consultant I will venture some hypotheses.

The most charitable explanation is that he and his advisers have succumbed to a view of electoral success to which many Democrats succumb — that “centrist” voters like “centrist” politicians. Unfortunately, reality is more complicated. Centrist voters prefer honest politicians who help them solve their problems. A second possibility is that he is simply not up to the task by virtue of his lack of experience and a character defect that might not have been so debilitating at some other time in history. Those of us who were bewitched by his eloquence on the campaign trail chose to ignore some disquieting aspects of his biography: that he had accomplished very little before he ran for president, having never run a business or a state; that he had a singularly unremarkable career as a law professor, publishing nothing in 12 years at the University of Chicago other than an autobiography; and that, before joining the United States Senate, he had voted “present” (instead of “yea” or “nay”) 130 times, sometimes dodging difficult issues.

A somewhat less charitable explanation is that we are a nation that is being held hostage not just by an extremist Republican Party but also by a president who either does not know what he believes or is willing to take whatever position he thinks will lead to his re-election. Perhaps those of us who were so enthralled with the magnificent story he told in “Dreams From My Father” appended a chapter at the end that wasn’t there — the chapter in which he resolves his identity and comes to know who he is and what he believes in.

Or perhaps, like so many politicians who come to Washington, he has already been consciously or unconsciously corrupted by a system that tests the souls even of people of tremendous integrity, by forcing them to dial for dollars — in the case of the modern presidency, for hundreds of millions of dollars. When he wants to be, the president is a brilliant and moving speaker, but his stories virtually always lack one element: the villain who caused the problem, who is always left out, described in impersonal terms, or described in passive voice, as if the cause of others’ misery has no agency and hence no culpability. Whether that reflects his aversion to conflict, an aversion to conflict with potential campaign donors that today cripples both parties’ ability to govern and threatens our democracy, or both, is unclear.

A final explanation is that he ran for president on two contradictory platforms: as a reformer who would clean up the system, and as a unity candidate who would transcend the lines of red and blue. He has pursued the one with which he is most comfortable given the constraints of his character, consistently choosing the message of bipartisanship over the message of confrontation.

But the arc of history does not bend toward justice through capitulation cast as compromise. It does not bend when 400 people control more of the wealth than 150 million of their fellow Americans. It does not bend when the average middle-class family has seen its income stagnate over the last 30 years while the richest 1 percent has seen its income rise astronomically. It does not bend when we cut the fixed incomes of our parents and grandparents so hedge fund managers can keep their 15 percent tax rates. It does not bend when only one side in negotiations between workers and their bosses is allowed representation. And it does not bend when, as political scientists have shown, it is not public opinion but the opinions of the wealthy that predict the votes of the Senate. The arc of history can bend only so far before it breaks.

And then we have terrific comments:

Telling stories

Well, whether you think all that hot stuff or not is not too important. What is important is that everyone realizes the importance of story as a way of holding attention and being well understood.

Now if only those producers in Hollywood can be persuaded to stop snorting coke for two minutes and hire good script writers, rather than pumping out remakes in 3D…..

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How to write poetry, by a 17th Century Frenchman, via Dryden

Boileau’s lengthy verse rephrased by John Dryden tells tips

Are they mostly obvious, or obsolete, or still apt?

Maybe you will find this long piece of wisdom worth quoting at friends climbing the mountain of poetic achievement.  Or maybe not.  We haven’t yet read all the way through it, since we have not yet found the time needed. Let us know what you find.

Who was Nicolas Boileau Despréaux, 1636-1711?   A critic and poet. See

In his masterpiece, The Art of Poetry, Boileau distinguishes himself not by the theoretical argument of the content, but by the witty, succinct phrases that summarize concepts examined previously by others. Added to this are several satiric passages that ridicule those authors whose bad taste or poor judgment led them to stray from the ideals of order, simplicity, and reason. In the first of four cantos, general principles of versification and clarity of expression are developed, and the useful service a poet’s honestfriend and critic can provide are described. The second canto provides the guidelines for the lesser genres, such as ode, elegy, satire, and sonnet. The third canto presents rules for writing the major poetic genres: tragedy, epic, and comedy. The well-known classical principle of the three dramatic unities (time, place, and action) is stated in a memorable couplet. The final canto is general in scope, moving from satire of Perrault to praise for the king, who encourages poetry and civilized discourse.

Who was Dryden?  One of England’s finest, an also ran to Shakespeare. See the Poetry Foundation:

Here’s the Art of Poetry:

The Art of Poetry
Art poâetique

Nicolas Boileau Despréaux, 1636-1711
John Dryden, 1631-1700 translator Sir William Soames
R. Bentley and S. Magnes

Published: 1683

(Found at the University of Virginia, from Early English Books Online, published by Bell and Howell).

Canto I.

Rash Author, ’tis a vain presumptuous Crime
To undertake the Sacred Art of Rhyme ;
If at thy Birth the Stars that rul’d thy Sence
Shone not with a Poetic Influence :
In thy strait Genius thou wilt still be bound,
Find Phoebus deaf, and Pegasus unsound.
You then, that burn with the desire to try
The dangerous Course of charming Poetry ;
Forbear in fruitless Verse to lose your time,
Or take for Genius the desire of Rhyme :
Fear the allurements of a specious Bait,
And well consider your own Force and Weight.
Nature abounds in Wits of every kind,
And for each Author can a Talent find :

One may in Verse describe an Amorous Flame,
Another sharpen a short Epigram :
Waller a Hero’s mighty Acts extol ;
Spencer Sing Rosalind in Pastoral :
But Authors that themselves too much esteem,
Lose their own Genius, and mistake their Theme ;
Thus in times past * Dubartas vainly Writ,
Allaying Sacred Truth with trifling Wit,
Impertinently, and without delight,
Describ’d the Israelites Triumphant Flight,
And following Moses o’re the Sandy Plain,
Perish’d with Pharaoh in th’ Arabian Main.
What-e’re you write of Pleasant or Sublime,
Always let sence accompany your Rhyme :
Falsely they seem each other to oppose ;
Rhyme must be made with Reason’s Laws to close.

nd when to conquer her you bend your force ,
The Mind will Triumph in the Noble Course ;
To Reason’s yoke she quickly will incline,
Which, far from hurting, renders her Divine :
But, if neglected, will as easily stray,
And master Reason, which she should obey.
Love Reason Then : and let what e’re you Write
Borrow from her its Beauty, Force, and Light.
Most Writers, mounted on a resty Muse,
Extravagant, and Senceless Objects chuse ;
They Think they erre, if in their Verse they fall
On any thought that’s Plain, or Natural :
Fly this excess ; and let Italians be
Vain Authors of false glitt’ring Poetry.
All ought to aim at Sence ; but most in vain
Strive the hard Pass, and slipp’ry Path to gain :
You drown, if to the right or left you stray ;
Reason to go has often but one way.

Sometimes an Author, fond of his own Thought,
Pursues his Object till it’s over-wrought :
If he describes a House, he shews the Face,
And after walks you round from place to place ;
Here is a Vista, there the Doors unfold,
Balcone’s here are Ballustred with Gold ;
Then counts the Rounds and Ovals in the Halls,
* The Festoons, Freezes, and the Astragals :
Tir’d with his tedious Pomp, away I run,
And skip o’re twenty Pages to be gon.
Of such Descriptions the vain Folly see,
And shun their barren Superfluity.
All that is needless carefully avoid ,
The Mind once satisfi’d, is quickly cloy’d :
He cannot Write, who knows not to give o’re,
To mend one Fault, he makes a hundred more :

A Verse was weak, you turn it much too strong,
And grow Obscure, for far you should be Long.
Some are not Gaudy, but are Flat and Dry ;
Not to be low, another soars too high.
Would you of every one deserve the Praise?
In Writing, vary your Discourse, and Phrase ;
A frozen Stile, that neither Ebs or Flows,
Instead of pleasing, makes us gape and doze.
Those tedious Authors are esteem’d by none
Who tire us, Humming the same heavy Tone.
Happy, who in his Verse can gently steer,
From Grave, to Light ; from Pleasant, to Severe :
His Works will be admir’d where-ever found,
And oft with Buyers will be compass’d round.
In all you Write, be neither Low nor Vile :
The meanest Theme may have a proper Stile.
The dull Burlesque appear’d with impudence,
And pleas’d by Novelty, in Spite of Sence.

and on and on.  You might like some sections more than others.  We like this part, on page 10, which seems very good advice.  Think before you compose:

No Reason can disperse ’em with its Light :
Learn then to Think, e’re you pretend to Write,
As your Idea’s clear, or else obscure,
Th’ Expression follows perfect, or impure :
What we conceive, with ease we can express ;
Words to the Notions flow with readiness.
Observe the Language well in all you Write,
And swerve not from it in your loftiest flight.
The smoothest Verse, and the exactest Sence
Displease us, if ill English give offence :
A barb’rous Phrase no Reader can approve ;
Nor Bombast, Noise, or Affectation Love.
In short, without pure Language, what you Write,
Can never yield us Profit, or Delight.
Take time for thinking ; never work in hast ;
And value not your self for writing fast.
A rapid Poem, with such fury writ,
Shews want of Judgment, not abounding Wit.

Much more to be said, but we”ll  leave it to Boileau and Dryden.

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Rex Reed writes two perfect bad movie reviews

The one time puff ball reviewer skewers kindly but fatally

With perfect poise, he makes No thanks an entertainment in itself

Are Super 8 and Trollhunter so bad they’re good?

A good bad review is an art, though not bad reviewing.  The worst movie reviews are by  critics who try too hard be clever and use a snarky stick to make a name for for themselves while beating those they review for their failures, without allowing for the subjectivity of their own personal taste,  nor the influence of sub-group culture –  the New York critics circle in most cases here, and the simple fact that a small change in point of view can easily change an estimation from trashy to worthwhile.

What every reader should hope for is a critic whose career has been long enough and whose editors and audience are smart and educated enough that he or she has no axe to grind other than love and appreciation of the good and gentle contemplation of the bad and how it might have been better.

Such a one is Rex Reed,  once a movie promoter’s dream who could be counted on for a blurb line whatever rating a movie actually deserved.  After quite a few years on the staff of the New York Observer he seems to have graduated onto the very highest plane of casual wit and descriptive perception, where every word is telling, and yet a touch is so light that even a total rejection can sound like kindly encouragement and enough respect to imply that the film may even be bad enough to be good, or at least entertaining.  All through Reed sounds sure that the director will do better next time, just as he probably did in the past.  In other words, he skewers with respect for talent and creative effort even if they fall far short of ideal.

Even reporting this week on two movies that he clearly suffered through without ever wanting to visit them again, Reed manages in each case to write a deftly entertaining story recap which is almost worth the price of admission in itself. Whether the directors will be pleased is another matter of course, let alone the marketing people.  But if you must be panned, surely this tolerant humor is the best you can hope for.  Each review reads more like an appreciation than a rejection until the very end, which is how a review should be – good and bad, but the final judgment only in the last sentence.


J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 Not So Super

The summer vacation doldrums are here, providing I.Q. challenges to moviegoers of all ages, but for adolescents with a lot of free time on their hands, Super 8 promises something extra.

It’s the work of  J.J. Abrams, the slam-bam hack writer-director of such junk as Star Trek and Mission Impossible 3 (OK, he also wrote the nifty, nail-biting road thriller Joy Ride, which I liked a lot), but this time the producer is Steven Spielberg, so you have a right to expect something with a bit more quality. Sorry to dash your hopes, but it’s just more of the same junk.  Junk for children, with an estimated $45-million budget. There oughta be a law.

The premise is simplicity itself. In the summer of 1979, six school chums in a small steel-mining town in Ohio decide to make a zombie movie with a hand-held 8-mm. camera to enter in a Cleveland film competition. A smart, imaginative kid named Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), wise beyond his years like Henry Thomas in E.T., does lights, monster makeup and special effects. Joe has recently lost his mother in a mining accident, but despite the  bravery and can-do attitude that make him a leader among the others, he still carries around his late mom’s locket for good luck. He also harbors a secret crush on Alice (Elle Fanning), who objects to working with Joe because his father (Kyle Chandler, who plays the football coach on the popular TV series Friday Night Lights) is the deputy sheriff who arrested her father for drunkenness at Joe’s mother’s funeral. In fact, both Joe and Alice have been forbidden to continue working on their little home movie, which their fathers consider a frivolous waste of time, but secretly continue, disobeying orders and sneaking out at night when their Dads aren’t home. This is easier than it sounds, since zombie movies are all night scenes anyway, right?

But one night while filming at the depot, they accidentally witness a spectacular train crash (and we witness some spectacular special effects that get the movie off to a breathtaking start). Out of the wreckage, a man warns: “Do not speak of this or you and your parents will die.” Good advice. Because, wouldn’t you know, an alien from outer space also emerges. This is no cuddly E.T., but a monolithic monster capable of destroying everything in its path, and it’s hopping mad. Automobile transmissions fail, generators die, all of the pets in town disappear, telephone wires vanish, water and electricity are on the fritz—and the kids caught it all on their Super 8! It’s all the result of some evil plan, natch, cooked up by the U.S. Air Force, in a secret military operation to imprison and study a master race from another planet… but never mind. You needn’t concern yourself about things like plot, character development, and science. Better to just let the charm and resourcefulness of the six kids take over, enjoy the sci-fi effects that appear at the beginning and end of the movie, and be grateful for small favors.

This movie is divided into two halves: the movie within the movie, and the stuff about the monster destroying the town that only the kids can save. The best thing about Super 8, by far, are the kids, all perfectly cast. The script does a much better job making them believable and real than the adults. The funniest parts of the movie center on the process of filming their zombie epic. Cary (Ryan Lee) is the one who likes to set fires and blow things up. Martin (Gabriel Basso) is the dashing leading man who bursts into tears when real danger threatens. Best of all, there is director Charles (Riley  Griffiths), the overweight, tyrannical Orson Welles of the pack, weaned on cheesy B-movie monsters-and-mayhem thrillers, who doesn’t care what calamities occur as long as the camera keeps rolling. Watching these youngsters following their dream against all odds, I found myself getting some of my inner child back and laughing out loud at the same time. The rest of the movie steals shamelessly from AlienThe Thing, and every other space visitor flick ever made, including Spielberg’s own Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It takes forever, but when we finally come face to face with the actual monster, it’s as silly as it is enigmatic—rolling its eyes like Casper the Friendly Ghost while sucking air-conditioners and toaster ovens into a heap like a walking garbage dump! Turns out he’s just homesick, and all it takes to calm him down is Joe’s locket. He’s no E.T. but he still understands “Go home.” By that time, I could hardly wait myself.


Written and directed by J.J. Abrams

Starring Elle Fanning, Kyle Chandler, AJ Michalka



Norwegian Sci-Fi Trollhunter Makes No Sense

The Norwegian film Trollhunter is Super 8with subtitles and a shoestring budget that wouldn’t pay for Mr. Spielberg’s Perrier. Based on the conceit that in 2008, 238 minutes of film arrived anonymously at a film studio in Oslo containing historic footage of a hunting party that encounters a fabled troll, the movie declares that after two years of investigation it was deemed authentic. Trollhunter, directed by André Øvredal, purports to be the edited version. The people in the footage were never found. The search goes on.

Conceived in the verité style of The Blair Witch Project—documentary realism spiked with fictional tension—and set among the treacherous mountainous curves above the mysterious fjords of Norway, the film is steeped in rain and fog as it follows three college kids with an 8 mm. handheld camera. They think they are following a bear poacher who resists all attempts to be interviewed, but when one of the boys is attacked and bitten in the dark, the weird man comes to the rescue with a tetanus shot. He works for the Troll Secret Service, a government agency dedicated to killing trolls and hiding their existence from the public. These agents are required to fill out a Slayed Troll Form listing the location and gender of each dead troll, as well as the cause of death. I mean, where do they think up this stuff? I guess the nights are long in Norway.

Sometimes the screen turns green (“troll piss” is the explanation). Sometimes the troll hunter just babbles endlessly, telling us more than we ever wanted to know.  From my childhood fairy tales, I always thought they were elflike people who wore real clothes and lived under the drawbridge. Turns out they are 1,200 years old, have three heads, and are very stupid. Anyone with an ambition to track trolls must first smear himself with “controlled troll stench.” And for godsake, why? The troll doesn’t actually do anything. It just growls and snarls and crunches trees beneath its feet, leaving footprints the size of locomotives. The dialogue is often hilarious, and I’m still wondering if the laughs are inadvertent. “Keep your distance!” warns the troll hunter. “I’m about to toss out some Christian man’s blood!” When they come across a pile of timber beams in the middle of a river, he says “This bridge was smashed by a wading troll that bumped his head.” Like the folks who dreamed up lycanthropy, the Trollhunter writers either have an abundance of imagination or they’ve been smoking a controlled substance.

Besides being immortalized in a movie this bad, a troll’s biggest problem is exposure to the sun. The young ones can’t convert Vitamin D from sunlight into calcium, so they explode. The old ones turn to stone. The college kids finally find a troll, but it has rabies. Before it gets them, they stop it in its tracks with a recording of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” The troll goes understandably mad.  Explains one lab technician: “I wish they didn’t have to experience such pain.”

But what about the audience?


Running time 90 minutes

Written and directed by André Øvredal

Starring Otto Jespersen, Robert Stoltenberg, Knut Nærum

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The strange case of Jill Abramson

Today we learn from the front page left bottom that Jill Abramson will replace Bill Keller for unknown reasons immediately at the helm of the Times.  Abramson Named Executive Editor at The Times By Jeremy Peters

What could have triggered this?  Are they in a panic over the Web?    The Times recently started charging for Web access but it aint gonna replace print ads.  If the Times goes, we will be stuck without a reliable daily voice as the foundation of our understanding of almost every topic.  Despite its sometimes horrendous flaws – as in its mindless support of the great scientific boondoggle, HIV/AIDS –  we are married to the Times until the end, our end at least, we hope.

Here’s another man’s view of the Times (a softened Gay Talese):

The clergy doesn’t tell the truth. Bankers don’t tell the truth. The government doesn’t tell the truth. Bush doesn’t tell the truth. Obama doesn’t tell the truth. Nobody tells the truth as much as the Times tries to tell the truth. And without the Times, we might as well be the Soviet Union in the old days.

Be that as it may, while we wait for some genius to tell us how to save print from the  ad drought, we have to wonder also at the steady elevation of the great Abramson despite what psychologists would say is a very great handicap when it comes to impressing others in this culture with your leadership quality – a massive drawl, a drawl so vast in its braking power that it paralyzes the thought processes of all who are listening, or trying to listen to her.

What is it in Jill’s makeup that so impresses all who deal with her that they entirely overlook what would otherwise mark her as the village idiot?   Surely it is not the possibility that it matches the general lethargy of Times editors, who seem incapable of allow texting to breathe and run.  Wading through the magazine is usually like running across a ploughed field. Only the most determined and fit can do it.

Yet the new executive editor, bless her warm heart with its love for tradition at the Times plus her openmindedness to the new digital age, is the vocal embodiment of that ploughed field.  What gives?

Is it the new PC era where people with handicaps are treated with special kindness and the challenges they have to meet, and do meet so courageously, are overlooked in the cause of treated them equally, as befits the greatest democracy?

At least Jill assures a Yale student that the Times is still making money:

Some worry that the dominance of the Internet has disrupted the business model of newspapers, but I see it presenting us with a great challenge. That challenge is to publish the best newspaper in the world — which still makes a nice amount of money and has a very avid readership — but also to develop what I think is the best news site on the web, and to be terrific at both. The Internet has made us more creative and more competitive in many ways.

Times‘ Managing Editor Gets Her News From Kids Who Get Their News From The Daily Show

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Hitchens on WWI: Mortal Debate

Acute review of To End All Wars points up ghastly human sacrifice

General Sir Henry complained his own casualties were too low

Why US intervention may have caused turmoil for the rest of the century

Christopher Hitchens, himself under a death sentence from esophagal cancer, has long been a child of privilege whose sense of noblesse oblige has led him to voice outrage against the abuse visited upon the people by the ruling classes, of which the Great War from 1914 to 1918 was perhaps the most murderous harm of all.

In this review, informed by his own fury, he shows us just how awful is the tale told by Adam Hochschild in his monumental new book, To End All Wars – A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918.   Not only were there the most grotesque examples of careless sacrifice of thousands of men, some of whom formed whole communities back home, but the Armistice of 1918 led to the second World War and violent and bitter struggles through 1989,  the end of the Cold War, to today.

The most remarkable point made is that if the US intervention led by General Pershing had not supplied fresh troops in the final stage of the bloodbath, the exhausted combatants would have reached a fairer armistice less vengeful in its demand for humiliating retribution on the Germans and thus one which less likely to have spawned Hitler and his ruthless reversal of its terms twenty years on.

A fine example of the clarity and thoughtfulness and precision (and exceptional storehouse of literary and political knowledge he draws upon)  of everything Hitchens wrote, and how great a literary loss we will suffer when he leaves the stage.

May 13, 2011

The Pacifists and the Trenches



A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918

By Adam Hochschild

Illustrated. 448 pp. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $28.

Woodrow Wilson’s fatuous claim about the European war of 1914-18 — sarcastically annexed by Adam Hochschild for the title of this moving and important book — was an object of satire and contempt even as it was being uttered. “A peace to end peace,” commented Sir Alfred Milner, that powerhouse of the British war cabinet, as he surveyed the terms of the Versailles treaty that supposedly brought the combat to a close. Increasingly, modern historians have come to regard that bleak November “armistice” as a mere truce in a long, terrible conflict that almost sent civilization into total eclipse and that did not really terminate until the peaceful and democratic reunification of Germany after November 1989. Even that might be an optimistic reading: the post-1918 frontiers of the former Ottoman Empire (one of the four great thrones that did not outlast the “First” World War) are still a suppurating source of violence and embitterment.

In his previous works, on subjects as diverse as the Belgian Congo and the victims of Stalinism, Hochschild has distinguished himself as a historian “from below,” as it were, or from the viewpoint of the victims. He stays loyal to this method in “To End All Wars,” concentrating on the appalling losses suffered by the rank and file and the extraordinary courage of those who decided that the war was not a just one. Since many of the latter were of the upper classes, some of them with close relatives in power, he is enabled to shift between the upstairs-downstairs settings of post-Edwardian England, as its denizens began in their different ways to realize that the world they had cherished was passing forever.

No single narrative can do justice to an inferno whose victims still remain uncounted. Hochschild tries to encompass the global scope of the disaster, and to keep us updated with accounts of what was occurring at a given time in Russia and the United States, but his main setting is England and his chief concern the Western Front. In this hecatomb along the minor rivers of Flanders and Picardy, the British people lost the cream of their working class and the flower of their aristocracy. The poems of Wilfred Owen and Rudyard Kipling, in their contrasting ways, still have the power to touch the tragic chord of memory that Hochschild strives to evoke.

For men like the Earl of Lansdowne, who tried to propose a negotiated peace, the terrifying thought was the slaughter of the class of well-bred young officers. (Of the 10 grandsons of the Marquess of Salisbury, five were killed in action.) For others, like Fenner Brockway, Alice Wheeldon and John S. Clarke, the war represented the human sacrifice of those miners, railwaymen and engineers whose skills should have been used instead to depose the aristocracy and build a new society. For them, it was a matter of common cause among British, German and Russian workers, and for this principle they risked harsh imprisonment, punitive conscription and even death. Ironically, perhaps, the most renowned of these resisters was Bertrand Russell, a dedicated leftist who was harder to silence precisely because he was the grandson of an earl. Hochschild has done his level best to build a memorial to these dissenters, and is hugely to be congratulated on his hard work: as a buff on this subject, I thought I was the only one who knew about Clarke, an obdurate Marxist who earned his living as a circus impresario and lion tamer.

However, once the howitzers had started their bellowing, proletarian internationalism had a marked tendency to evaporate. Only Lenin and a handful of other irreducible revolutionaries bided their time, waiting for the war to devour those monarchs who had been foolish enough to start it. Meanwhile, fratricide was the rule. Under the fog of war, the Armenians (not really dealt with here) were put to the sword in the 20th century’s first genocide, and British artillery was used in Dublin streets to put down an Irish rising.

Ruthless as they were in the killing of others, the generals were also shockingly profligate and callous when it came to their “own.” In some especially revolting passages, we find Gen. Sir Douglas Haig and his arrogant subordinate Gen. Sir Henry Rawlinson actually complaining when British casualties were too low, and exulting — presumably because enemy losses were deemed comparable — when they moved into the tens of thousands. What this meant in cold terms was the destruction of whole regiments, often comprising (as in the cases of Newfoundland and Ulster) entire communities back home who had volunteered as a body and stayed together in arms. They vanished, in clouds of poison gas, hails of steel splinters and great lakes of sucking mud. Or lay in lines, reminding all observers of mown-down corn, along the barbed wire and machine-gun emplacements against which they had been thrown. Like me, Hochschild has visited the mass graves and their markers, which still lie along the fields of northern France and Belgium, and been overwhelmed by what Wilfred Owen starkly and simply called “the pity of War.” (Owen was to die pointlessly as the guns were falling silent: his mother received the telegram as the church bells were ringing to celebrate the armistice — or better in retrospect to say “fragile cease-fire.”)

We read these stirring yet wrenching accounts, of soldiers setting off to battle accompanied by cheers, and shudder because we know what they do not. We know what is coming, in other words. And coming not only to them. What is really coming, stepping jackbooted over the poisoned ruins of civilized Europe, is the pornographic figure of the Nazi. Again, Hochschild is an acute register. He has read the relevant passages of “Mein Kampf,” in which a gassed and wounded Austrian corporal began to incubate the idea of a ghastly revenge. He notes the increasing anti-Semitism of decaying wartime imperial Germany, with its vile rumors of Jewish cowardice and machination. And he approaches a truly arresting realization: Nazism can perhaps be avoided, but only on condition that German militarism is not too heavily defeated on the battlefield.

This highly unsettling reflection is important above all for American readers. If General Pershing’s fresh and plucky troops had not reached the scene in the closing stages of the bloodbath, universal exhaustion would almost certainly have compelled an earlier armistice, on less savage terms. Without President Wilson’s intervention, the incensed and traumatized French would never have been able to impose terms of humiliation on Germany; the very terms that Hitler was to reverse, by such relentless means, a matter of two decades later. In this light, the great American socialist Eugene V. Debs, who publicly opposed the war and was kept in prison by a vindictive Wilson until long after its ending, looks like a prescient hero. Indeed, so do many of the antiwar militants to whose often-buried record Hochschild has done honor. (Unsentimental to the last, though, he shows that many of them went on to lose or waste their lives on Bolshevism, the other great mutant system to emerge from the abattoir.) This is a book to make one feel deeply and painfully, and also to think hard.

Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair. His memoir, “Hitch-22,” will be published in paperback next month.

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“Arthur” Remake Provokes A. O. Scott To Perfection

Times critic skewers movie monster with toreador elegance

Apparently snorting coke is not terribly good for the brains of Hollywood executives, judging from their output over the last forty years, and one of the worst symptoms is the rash of remakes of classic movies we have had to put up with where, in search of easy money, they choose titles which are so irreplaceable in the pantheon of creative excellence that any edited second edition is doomed from the beginning.

Thus the very fine The Heartbreak Kid, the minor but priceless Elaine May-Charles Grodin-Cybil Shepherd classic of 1971, was updated in 2007 into a heavy footed Ben Stiller farce which had none of the heart tugging emotional risk taking of the original.  The 1955 Ealing Studios Ladykillers remade by the Coen brothers reportedly came off badly, and their revision of John Wayne’s True Grit with Jeff Bridges only won a warm reception from critics with wholesale rewriting, one gathers (we don’t go near these things except for research purposes) .

Now we have  the Arthur remake by Russell Brand of Dudley Moore’s 1981 tour-de-force, which David Denby in the New Yorker this week dismisses rather shortly as fatally flawed (“has so many things wrong with it that one can only stare at the screen in disbelief”).   But from the ashes emerges a gem – the perfectly pitched review of this disaster by A.O.Scott at the Times,  which ends with a witty guffaw so appropriate it redeems the existence of the entire misguided movie:

A Lush Life Revisited, With Nanny On Board

By A. O. Scott  April 7, 2011

It would be conventional to describe “Arthur” as a vehicle for the talents of Russell Brand, who plays the boozy billionaire of the title, but that would be to get it backward. Mr. Brand, with his stringy hair, stretched-out body and nutty British demeanor, is more like the beast of burden, charged with hauling this grim load of mediocrity to the box office. The film, directed by Jason Winer and based on a fondly recalled 1981 comedy of the same name starring Dudley Moore, has been made according to a lazy and cynical commercial blueprint. You’ve seen it in the lesser work of Will FerrellAdam Sandlerand most other male comedians who walk the line between popularity and overexposure. The star does his patented shtick, supported by a handful of blue-chip supporting performers, as the story lurches through contrived, seminaughty comic set pieces toward a sentimental ending.

The original “Arthur” followed this formula too but with enough inventiveness and sincerity to make it an enduringly enjoyable experience, if not quite the “classic” it is sometimes claimed to be. In addition to Mr. Moore, it had Liza Minnellias Arthur’s wacky love interest and John Gielgud as his butler. The new version has Greta Gerwig and Helen Mirren in analogous roles, which should have yielded something refreshing rather than dispiriting.

Ms. Mirren, playing Arthur’s nanny, Hobson, acquits herself with just the blend of starch and mischief you would expect. Ms. Gerwig, who when given a chance has an intriguing way of mixing slyness and sincerity, cannot quite slip out of the prison the filmmakers have built for her — a locked room at the Zooey Deschanel Institute for the Cute and Quirky. Her character, Naomi, is a waifish aspiring children’s book author from Queens who conducts wide-eyed, clandestine tours of Grand Central Terminal for visitors from Tweeland. But of course Naomi’s real job is to be charmed by Arthur and then hurt by him, repeating the sequence until he has resolved his issues and we can all go home.

Those issues are, at least superficially, alcohol and money, about which the movie, like the rest of American culture, has a great deal of ambivalence. We love money because of all the carefree fun we imagine having with it — Arthur rents out Grand Central for a date, stages bidding wars with himself at antiques auctions and buys as many cars, toys and clothes as he wants — but we don’t much like to think about how it is acquired. Luckily, the ugly, greedy side of wealth is incarnated by the movie’s villains. Arthur’s cold, disapproving mother (Geraldine James), who runs the giant corporation that feeds his whims, strong-arms him into an engagement with Susan (Jennifer Garner), a grasping heiress with a mean, macho, self-made dad (Nick Nolte). Next to all of them, Arthur, who has proudly never done a day’s work in his life, is meant to seem irresponsible, sure, but also authentic — a harmless hedonist.

And also a harmless drunk, a notion the film has a bit more trouble sustaining. Drunkenness, it is widely agreed, is funny: people fall down, slur their words and do crazy stuff they can’t remember the next day. Alcoholism, however, is sad. It wrecks lives, families, cars and livers. The first “Arthur,” the product of a less anxious age, managed to find a workable balance of poignancy and pixilation, making its hero at once a lovable free spirit and a pitiable lost soul. This one, trying to repeat the trick, inadvertently affirms a truth definitively established in an early episode of “The Simpsons,” namely that most drunks, however sparkling they may appear to themselves, are boring and tiresome to others.

And so it is with Arthur, who insists against all evidence that he is actually charming and who is supported in that judgment by Hobson and Naomi. His only other friend is his chauffeur, Bitterman (Luis Guzmán), who is not Robin to Arthur’s Batman (despite an early superhero-costumed scene suggesting as much), but rather Winnie the Pooh to his Tigger. Arthur may have grown-up appetites for liquor and sex, but his defining trait is childishness. He is not so much adolescent as almost literally infantile, talking in a high-pitched baby voice and dependent on a squadron of mommies.

Naomi makes a show of spurning that role, but who is she kidding? Hobson at one point extols the joys of taking care of Arthur, and while the movie pretends that he must grow up and learn to care for others (and stop drinking), its momentum is all in the other direction. What is supposed to be Arthur’s maturation is actually regression, as if he were trading in the whiskey bottle for the baby bottle. He rejects the corruptions of adulthood imposed by his ruthless mother and his sexually predatory fiancée in favor of a relationship characterized by unthreatening, childlike innocence. He and Naomi eat Pez candy on their first date and share their happy-ending kiss in a room full of kindergartners. Never have I needed a drink so badly.

“Arthur” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). It has some naughty language and sexual situations.


Opens on Friday nationwide.

Directed by Jason Winer; written by Peter Baynham, based on a story by Steve Gordon and the movie “Arthur,” written and directed by Mr. Gordon; director of photography, Uta Briesewitz; edited by Brent White; music by Theodore Shapiro; production design by Sarah Knowles; costumes by Juliet Polcsa; produced by Larry Brezner, Kevin McCormick, Chris Bender and Michael Tadross; released by Warner.

WITH: Russell Brand (Arthur), Helen Mirren (Hobson), Greta Gerwig (Naomi), Jennifer Garner (Susan), Geraldine James (Vivienne), Luis Guzmán (Bitterman) and Nick Nolte (Burt Johnson).

Nice headline writing, too.

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Paul Rudnick is Hilarious

Shouts and Murmurs in the New Yorker this week features another delicious bit of foolery by Paul Rudnick guying Mahatma Gandhi’s known predilection for using young nymphs as hot water bottles late in life, two at a time, without, we are always told, any arousal.   The obvious explanation is …….

But why is this so delicious?  Rudnick surpassed himself.


I Was Gandhi’s Boyfriend

by Paul Rudnick

According to a new biography by Joseph Lelyveld, the love of Mahatma Gandhi’s life was a German-Jewish bodybuilder named Hermann Kallenbach. “Your portrait (the only one) stands on my mantelpiece in my bedroom,” Gandhi wrote to Kallenbach. “The mantelpiece is opposite to the bed.”
KOCHI, India—Gandhi is still so revered in India that a book about him that few Indians have read and that hasn’t even been published in this country has been banned in one state and may yet be banned nationwide.
—The Times.

I know that some people still don’t buy that Gandhi was gay, but let me tell you, from experience, Gandhi liked guys. I first met him when he came to see my ice show in Nepal, which was called “Holiday on Dirt.” Gandhi came backstage and he told me, “I very much enjoyed watching you pretend to ice-skate, in your tight pants.” I asked him, “Um, so why are you wearing a diaper?” And he explained that his outfit was a traditional Indian dhoti, and I said, “Well, you look like the New Year’s baby.” And he said, “You are so handsome when you are not speaking.”

Then he told me about how he made the fabric for his dhoti himself, on his spinning wheel and hand loom, and I said, “Whoa, are you, like, a Native American lesbian?” And he said, “I will tell you over dinner.”

So we do the dinner thing, and he’s all, like, “I’ll just have a salad,” and I go, “Wait, are you some sort of total vegetarian whatever?” And he says yes, that he doesn’t believe in killing living things for food, and I’m, like, “Excuse me, but I’m gonna eat the cow before it eats me.” And Gandhi says, “You are the only grown man I have ever met whose first name is Kelly.” And I’m, like, “Well, your first name is Mohandas, right? Maybe you should change it, so that people can relate more. You could be, like, Tim Gandhi or Gary Gandhi.” And he goes, “Oh, Kelly.”

But he’s kinda cute, you know, in a legendary-world-leader sort of way, and he’s telling me all about his philosophy of nonviolence—I mean, on and on, blah blah blah, until I just want to smack him. And so I say, “O.K., so what if someone, like, punches you—are you just gonna sit there?” And he says, “Yes. What would you do?” And I say, “If someone punched me, I would throw my drink at them. I mean, maybe you should try that with the British.” And he says, “You are so very wise, perhaps you should spell your name Kellhi.”

And I think that’s totally adorable, so I say, “Let’s go back to your place,” and he tells me that he’s celibate. And I’m, like, “Huh? ’Scuse me?” And he says that he believes in the purity of the body and the soul, and that sometimes he sleeps beside a naked young woman, and does not become aroused. And I’m, like, “Me, too.” And then he says that also he’s married. And I’m thinking, Kelly, here we go again.

So I ask him if he’s come out to his parents, and he says, “Oh, no, they’re all old-school Hindu and they wouldn’t understand.” So I say, “But wouldn’t it be cool if you could do a campaign with a poster of your parents hugging you, and the poster could say, ‘Staying in the Closet Is a Hin-Don’t’?” And then he tells me about how India has this, like, totally bogus caste system, and how they even have people called untouchables, and I’m, like, “You mean brunettes?” And he laughs and I say, “No, it’s not funny. You mean, like, brunettes?” And he asks, “Kelly, have you ever studied any world history?,” and I’m, like, “Excuse me, but I happen to be wearing an imported Italian cashmere sweater,” and he says, “You know, maybe I’ll think about a steak.”

Of course, he eventually dumped me for this German-Jewish bodybuilder, and I warned him, I said, “Hello, been there, and I know that at first it sounds hot, but pretty soon it’s all ‘Nein, I can’t stay out late, because I have to get up early for the gym,’ and ‘Nein, we can’t do your rally for South Africa, because we’ve got my cousin’s Seder, remember?’ And his mother will be all ‘So, Mr. Gandhi, I’m told you like to lie down in front of railroad cars, to demonstrate a political point. Can you make a living from this?’ ”

But Gandhi and I stayed in touch, because he really was a good person. And he’d give me advice on guys and stuff. Like, he told me, “I know he’s cute, with the mustache and all, but Stalin is not for you.” But do I listen? ♦

Thank God for the survival of the New Yorker in print.  Perfect for bath and bed.

Read more

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Candid Interviews on Divorce

Adam Sternbergh on Dana Adam Shapiro’s “Monogamy” Material

NYT Mag Quotes Priceless Divorcee Testimony Used for Movie

“To this day I say I’ve only been with six or seven.   And those dumbasses believe it!”

The only virtuous purpose of any good writing is truth seeking, and ironically, it occasionally happens that expert journalists and/or movie script writers may find themselves one upped by their sources from real life, and simply quoting their searingly frank testimony.

One outstanding case is Break It Up, a piece by Adam Sterbergh that appeared in the New York Times magazine (p41) of March 13, 2011.

Since retitled on the Web, A Brutally Candid Oral History of Breaking Up, the piece is written with the journeyman skill of a typical Times Mag writer, who would probably do it far better for the editors of the New Yorker.  But we found the whole piece fascinating for its interview segments quoted verbatim, especially the one by the self styled “slut”!

That’s Interview No. 16, below, by The Adulteress:

Yes, I hid my true nature from my ex. I acted like I’d had less sex than I did because I thought he would think I was slutty — which I was at times. But he was kind of conservative, so I was hesitant to tell him some of the stuff I’d done. You know, I’d let him think it was the first time with him. . . . I don’t know, I’m kind of fake with guys. Like, I hate the amount of people I’ve slept with — to this day I say I’ve only been with six or seven. And those dumbasses believe it! All girls lie about that — the point is, guys don’t need to know.

From the lady’s mouth, no less.

Of course, a less trite idea is the one vouchsafed in Interview No 12 by The Two Time Ex:

“If there had been one tenth as much passion in our marriage as there was in our divorce, we would have just celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary!”

A Brutally Candid Oral History of Breaking


Published: March 11, 2011

On Thanksgiving 2008, Dana Adam Shapiro, a few years removed from his Oscar nomination for directing the documentary “Murderball,” visited his childhood home in Boston to find that a good friend of his was divorcing. The friend had been married for three years and, like Shapiro, was in his mid-30s. (Shapiro is now 37.) This was the fourth divorce that Shapiro heard about just that month. In fact, after absorbing the news, he sat down to make a list of all the couples he knew, under the age of 40, whose marriages had already broken up. He came up with 14 names. That struck Shapiro as too many. “It was unbelievable,” he says now. “I wanted to ask them all what went wrong, but you can’t ask those kind of personal questions of people. Unless you’re writing a book.”

So Shapiro, a one-time journalist and an admirer of the oral histories of Studs Terkel, set out to collect an oral history of breaking up. He began by interviewing his friends, who agreed to talk on the condition of anonymity. Then he started asking around. Every time he met someone, he would mention his project. If that person wasn’t divorced, he or she reliably knew someone who was. Shapiro would ask to interview the divorcees, either in person, by e-mail or over the phone. Over two years, he collected about 50 interviews — some transcripts were a few paragraphs, others ran to 30 pages or more — from people of all ages, all across the United States. And what he found, somewhat surprisingly, was that nearly every person he asked to discuss the breakup was happy, even eager, to talk.

Interview No. 7
The Young Wife
BORN: 1981. RAISED: Rolling Meadows, Ill. NOW LIVES: Ann Arbor, Mich. MARRIAGE: 2006 to 2007.
I thought he was hot — I liked his Robert Smith hair and hipster clothes. He was intelligent, clever and deeply kind. He had all these creative pursuits that he was really engaged in and pretty good at, but didn’t seem to have any illusions about being able to make a living doing them. He also has this absolutely infectious enthusiasm that can make the world seem like an almost magical place, and when we started dating, he got really enthusiastic about me. I felt calmed, like he smoothed out my rough edges, in a good way.

But some of those things began to change even before we got married. He gained some weight and stopped paying as much attention to how he looked, and his creative output slowed dramatically. Instead, he began spending most of his time playing video games and watching television. By the time we got married, it was like there was no reason to try to impress, entertain or charm anymore. We slept at completely different times and almost never in our bed. Due to some finds on Craigslist, we had three couches, and we slept separately so regularly we’d refer to them as our “his and hers couches.”

I felt lonely but couldn’t identify it as loneliness. How could I be lonely married to the love of my life? We had settled into a routine where we only had sex once a week or so, maybe even less. There was no variety, and no real mental or emotional rewards. There was none of the urgency or tension that makes sex so great — that sense of wanting to impress or entice someone. I also got really precious about conditions being just right. I had this idea that if I had sex when I didn’t really want to, I would start to associate sex with being a chore or a burden and start to hate it. So I turned down or discouraged advances if I wasn’t already “in the mood,” which in turn made him less likely to make advances.

We talked about everything a lot, tried to think of things we could do, but rarely came up with concrete changes, so we never really fixed anything.

At this time, Shapiro was also considering what topic his next film should tackle, when he came upon an article online about a service you can hire to stalk you and take surveillance photos. That sounded like a great idea for a character, Shapiro thought, so he contacted his friend Evan Wiener about collaborating on a script. “The peanut-butter-and-chocolate moment was when we thought, Let’s graft this character from a De Palma thriller onto an Eric Rohmer moral tale,” Shapiro says. The movie, which is not a documentary, would focus on relationships and how they splinter: specifically, the relationship of a Brooklyn couple, both in their 30s, who are set to marry when their bond starts to fray. After all, this is what Shapiro had spent the last year and a half thinking over and studying and talking to people about.

The resultant film, “Monogamy,” opens across the country this weekend. It centers on the story of Theo (played by Chris Messina), a professional photographer engaged to Nat (Rashida Jones). Nat seems to have lost interest in Theo sexually, and Theo, like so many undercooked urban males of marrying age, finds himself constantly distracted by the swirl of beautiful women around him. The couple fights. The relationship wobbles. When Nat is laid up in the hospital after a sliced finger leads to a staph infection, Theo neglects her to vainly chase an anonymous exhibitionist he has been hired to stalk and photograph. He is, in short, a cad. He’s also the film’s hero.

At festival screenings, the movie divided audiences — some saw truth in its thorny portrayal of modern romance, others saw Theo as a callow heel. To Shapiro, Theo is simply a product of what Shapiro learned from his dozens of interviews with real people whose relationships failed. “It’s the easiest thing to write a sympathetic character for the audience to root for,” he says. “But there usually isn’t a villain. It’s not white-hat, black-hat. All the people I interviewed are sort of flawed antiheroes — and that’s what Theo is in the movie. They’re not necessarily ‘good people.’ They’re all simply trying to be good.”

Interview No. 12
The Two-Time Ex
BORN: 1958. RAISED: Edison, N.J. NOW LIVES: East Stroudsburg, Pa.MARRIAGES: 1983 to 1990; 1994 to 1996; 1998 to present.
There’s no such thing as a Noël Coward divorce. You know, that sort of amicable, happy-go-lucky divorce where everybody’s interested in pursuing their own interests and whatever maliciousness is sort of clever and beautifully executed. It’s not like that at all. I don’t care how much you might have loved the person — halfway through any divorce the only thing you can think of is: I hate this person, and I want this person to bleed.

I was flat out the world’s worst husband. I was inconsiderate, I was selfish, I was utterly self-absorbed. At this period, I was also a drunk. And in 1983 — Nov. 19, 1983 — I went on an absolutely horrific bender. And in the course of that bender — I don’t remember this, but I know what happened — I slapped her. And that was enough to make me stop drinking. But you know what my stopping drinking did? It destroyed my marriage.

We moved down to the Jersey Shore, and I started working at a small weekly newspaper. I would go in at 9:30 on Monday morning — and I’d work straight through until about 2 a.m. Wednesday morning. We hardly ever saw each other.

It was around this time that a really young reporter who came from a really troubled background started hitting on me. And I responded. It never got to the point of sex because, frankly, I was too conflicted to have it. But it came very, very close, and the sexual tension was utterly addictive, particularly for a recovering alcoholic. I became addicted to the guilt, the shame, the anger. . . . Meanwhile, I made very little effort to hide any of this from my wife. And at that point, she entered into a similar relationship with a guy.

Nothing that I ever did during the course of our entire marriage involved me thinking about my wife as a first thought. And yet now, as we were going through the divorce, she was all I could think about. If there had been one-tenth — one-hundredth — as much passion in our marriage as there was in our divorce, we would have just celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary.

Shapiro himself is not, and has never been, married. In fact, of all the principals who worked on the film, from the actors to the crew, almost no one was married. “All of us were either single or divorced. And everyone’s in their mid-30s,” Shapiro says. Chris Messina, the lead actor, is divorced, and after filming the movie’s disarmingly realistic breakup scene — a product of hours of long takes and improvisation — he told Shapiro, “I just left blood on the screen.” Messina says now: “That was a tough scene. I’ve had that scenario in my life where there’s just nothing to say. You love this person so much, but it’s just all wrong. It’s just all cracked.”

So it will not be surprising — or much of a spoiler — to say that the film, in the end, takes a grim, if not entirely apocalyptic, view of relationships. It’s this intractable difficulty that intrigues Shapiro, this idea of “marriage carcasses,” as he says. He originally considered doing research into happy marriages — couples celebrating 50 years, looking back over the rough but eventually conquered terrain — but realized there was no real story there. He paraphrases Tolstoy: “All happy couples are the same. Which is to say they’re just boring.”

Wrecks, though — wrecks are fascinating. It’s true that, reading through his interviews, you feel a pure, prurient thrill at the smoking aftermath. “They’re cautionary tales. And this movie is like the driver’s-ed films they showed back in high school,” he says. “If you want to make an impact, you don’t show someone cruising the Riviera with the top down. You show them dead and bloody at the side of the road.”

Interview No. 16
The Adulteress
Born: 1971. Raised: Western Pennsylvania. Lives: Greenwich Village, N.Y.MARRIAGE: 2005 to 2006.
It’s funny, my ex and I had a lot of the same habits — we loved the same TV and the same junk food. But in general we were complete opposites. I was the spoiled, better-educated, well-traveled wild girl, and he was a meat-and-potatoes Long Island boy. In retrospect, we were not compatible at all. I mean, who doesn’t like TV and junk food?

I guess I changed after the marriage, or maybe I just showed my true colors. When I met him I was not particularly attracted to him, he just grew on me — maybe because I knew that he worshiped me and that I could dominate him. He wasn’t stupid; he just wasn’t interesting or worldly. Also, he sometimes dressed like an uncool retard. I know I sound like a total bitch. When you’re dating, you put more effort into yourself and the other person. Then after you’re comfortable for a while, things start to slip, you’re not quite as nice. At least I’m not.

Yes, I hid my true nature from my ex. I acted like I’d had less sex than I did because I thought he would think I was slutty — which I was at times. But he was kind of conservative, so I was hesitant to tell him some of the stuff I’d done. You know, I’d let him think it was the first time with him. . . . I don’t know, I’m kind of fake with guys. Like, I hate the amount of people I’ve slept with — to this day I say I’ve only been with six or seven. And those dumbasses believe it! All girls lie about that — the point is, guys don’t need to know.

I flirted with this guy at the gym for years, but when I knew he was gonna be at this party, I went — even though I should have known I couldn’t trust myself. He was there, looking for me, and we were like magnets. I could have avoided it, and probably should have. But I was weak, self-indulgent, disrespectful and impulsive. We wound up having a major affair, and that was the beginning of the end of my marriage.

To this day my husband never found out. How the hell did I get away with it? I was a cheater and a liar, and it takes one to know one. That’s why he never suspected me. Because he’s not a cheater and a liar. He never thought in that way.

“I want to get married one day,” Shapiro says. “I’m not anti-marriage. The film is a pro-marriage film.” His hope is that the film might inspire us to all be better drivers, but he understands that it might have the opposite effect. He mentions Bergman’s “Scenes From a Marriage,” though he “heard after they showed that in Sweden, the divorce rate spiked.”

So in “Monogamy,” he settled on a somewhat-degraded version of happily ever after. “There’s a song from Julia Darling that I like with the line ‘I’ll be the reason you’re good to someone,’ ” he says. “That’s how I feel about these characters: I want them both to learn from their mistakes.

“A friend of mine said something similar to me the other night: ‘I know my ex, who was so horrible to me, is so nice to his girlfriend now. I like to think it’s because of me.’ ” It’s not exactly an incurably romantic outlook. But after you’ve spent two years chronicling the wreckage of relationships, it’s what passes for a valentine.

Adam Sternbergh ( is the culture editor for the magazine. His Twitter account is @sternbergh.
Story editor: Tony Gervino (

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Demetri Martin is Perfectly Droll

Try this piece for a good laugh, for its perfect balance in writing tickling foolishness, and its sense of gentle satire so perfect in its kindly tolerance of folly that it puts numberless philosophical angels on the head of a very sharp pin:


by Demetri Martin

Who am I? That is a simple question, yet it is one without a simple answer. I am many things—and I am one thing. But I am not a thing that is just lying around somewhere, like a pen, or a toaster, or a housewife. That is for sure. I am much more than that. I am a living, breathing thing, a thing that can draw with a pen and toast with a toaster and chat with a housewife, who is sitting on a couch eating toast. And still, I am much more.

I am a man.

And I am a former baby and a future skeleton, and I am a distant future pile of dust. I am also a Gemini, who is on the cusp.

I am “brother” and I am “son” and I am “father” (but just according to one person, who does not have any proof but still won’t seem to let it go). Either way, I am moving very soon and not letting her know about it. I am asking you to keep that between us.

I am trustworthy and loyal, but at the same time I am no Boy Scout. No, I am certainly not. I am quite the opposite, in fact. And by opposite I do not mean Girl Scout. No. I mean Man Scout. And by that I do not mean Scout Leader. In fact, I am not affiliated with the Scouts at all. Let’s just forget about the Scouts and Scouting altogether, O.K.?

I am concepts and thoughts and feelings and outfits. And I am each of these all at once, unless I am in the shower. Then I am not outfits, because that would be uncomfortable.

To some I am known as Chief. And these are usually people who work in Radio Shack or try to sell me shoes. To others I am known as Buddy. These are people who dwell in bars and wonder if I’ve got a problem or what it is that I am “looking at.” And to still others, who are in that same bar, standing just off to the side, I am “Get Him!”

I am he and I am him. I am this and I am that. And I am, from time to time, Roberta, if I am in a chat room.

People have known me by many titles. In high school, I was Student and Key Club Vice-President and Queer Bait. In college, I was Pledge and then Disappointed and then Transfer Student. I am still amazed at how picky certain so-called “brotherly” organizations can be. And I am actually glad that they didn’t choose me for their stupid fraternity.

To some I am fantasy, and to others I am Frank, mostly because I have told them that this is my name—even though it is not even close to my name. I am a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a pita. Why the pita? That counts as another mystery.

Read again at

But of course, you’ll be wondering first who is Dmitri Martin?  Of one thing we are sure – the man deserves a Rockefeller Foundation or McArthur grant to ensure he is not distracted from further examples of his genius by silly household errands like earning rent and groceries, though of course as long as the New Yorker runs Shouts and Murmurs there may be no problem in combining the two.

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Hitchens’ Updated Ten Commandments

Christopher Hitchens is a shining light among authors, column writers and talking heads for expressing himself in correct English free of cliched redundancies, and he is proud of it.   His analytical powers made short order mincemeat out of the religious dogmatists in “God Is Not Great”,  and in defending his ideas on stage book appearances.  But perhaps the best thing he wrote on the subject was this piece in Vanity Fair in April 2010, updating the Ten Commandments.

The New Commandments

The Ten Commandments were set in stone, but it may be time for a re-chisel. With all due humility, the author takes on the job, pruning the ethically dubious, challenging the impossible, and rectifying some serious omissions.

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What do we say when we want to revisit a long-standing policy or scheme that no longer seems to be serving us or has ceased to produce useful results? We begin by saying tentatively, “Well, it’s not exactly written in stone.” (Sometimes this comes out as “not set in stone.”)

By that, people mean that it’s not one of the immutable Tablets of the Law. Thus, more recent fetishes such as the gold standard, or the supposedly holy laws of the free market, can be discarded as not being incised on granite or marble. But what if it is the original stone version that badly needs a re-write? Who will take up the revisionist chisel?

There is in fact a good biblical precedent for doing just that, since the giving of the divine Law by Moses appears in three or four wildly different scriptural versions. (When you hear people demanding that the Ten Commandments be displayed in courtrooms and schoolrooms, always be sure to ask which set. It works every time.) The first and most famous set comes in Exodus 20 but ends with Moses himself smashing the supposedly most sacred artifacts ever known to man: the original, God-dictated panels of Holy Writ. The second edition occurs in Exodus 34, where new but completely different tablets are presented after some heavenly re-write session and are for the first time called “the ten commandments.” In the fifth chapter of Deuteronomy, Moses once more calls his audience together and recites the original Sinai speech with one highly significant alteration (the Sabbath commandment’s justifications in each differ greatly). But plainly discontented with the effect of this, he musters the flock again 22 chapters further on, as the river Jordan is coming into view, and gives an additional set of orders—chiefly terse curses—which are also to be inscribed in stone. As with the gold plates on which Joseph Smith found the Book of Mormon in upstate New York, no trace of any of these original yet conflicting tablets survives.

Thus we are fully entitled to consider them as a work in progress. May there not be some old commandments that could be retired, as well as some new ones that might be adopted? Taking the most celebrated Top 10 in order, we find (I am using the King James, or “Authorized,” version of the text):

I and II

These commandments are in fact a mixture of related injunctions. I am the lord thy God.… Thou shalt have no other gods before me. This use of capitalization and upper- and lowercase carries the intriguing implication that there perhaps are some other gods but not equally deserving of respect or awe. (Scholars differ about the epoch during which the Jewish people decided on monotheism.) Then comes the prohibition of “graven images” or indeed “any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” This appears to forbid representational art, just as some Muslims interpret the Koran to forbid the depiction of any human form, let alone any sacred one. (It certainly seems to discourage Christian iconography, with its crucifixes, and statues of virgins and saints.) But the ban is obviously intended as a very emphatic one, since it comes with a reminder that I the lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation. The collective punishment of future children, for the sin of lèse-majesté, may not strike everyone as an especially moral promise.


Thou shalt not take the name of the lord thy God in vain, for the lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain. A slightly querulous and repetitive note is struck here, as if of injured vanity. Nobody knows how to obey this commandment, or how to avoid blasphemy or profanity. For example, I say “God alone knows” when I sincerely intend to say “Nobody knows.” Is this ontologically dangerous? Ought not unalterable laws to be plain and unambiguous?


Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. This ostensibly brief commandment goes on for a long time—for four verses in fact—and stresses the importance of a day dedicated to the lord, during which neither one’s children nor one’s servants or animals should be allowed to perform any tasks. (Query: Why is it specifically addressed to people who are assumed to have staff?)

Nobody is opposed to a day of rest. The international Communist movement got its start by proclaiming a strike for an eight-hour day on May 1, 1886, against Christian employers who used child labor seven days a week. But in Exodus 20:8–11, the reason given for the day off is that “in six days the lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day.” Yet in Deuteronomy 5:15 a different reason for the Sabbath observance is offered: “Remember that thou wast a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the lord thy God brought thee out thence through a mighty hand and by a stretched out arm: therefore the lord thy God commanded thee to keep the sabbath day.” Preferable though this may be, with its reminder of previous servitude, we again find mixed signals here. Why can’t rest be recommended for its own sake? Also, why can’t the infallible and omniscient and omnipotent one make up his mind what the real reason is?


Honor thy father and thy mother. Innocuous as this may seem, it is the only commandment that comes with an inducement instead of an implied threat. Both the Exodus and Deuteronomy versions urge it for the same reason: “that thy days may be long upon the land which the lord thy God giveth thee.” This perhaps has the slight suggestion of being respectful to Father and Mother in order to come into an inheritance—the Israelites have already been promised the Canaanite territory that is currently occupied by other people, so the prospective legacy pickings are rather rich. Again, why not propose filial piety as a nice thing in itself?


Thou shalt not kill. This very celebrated commandment quite obviously cannot mean what it seems to say in English translation. In the original Hebrew it comes across as something more equivalent to “Thou shalt do no murder.” We can be fairly sure that the “original intent” is not in any way pacifistic, because immediately after he breaks the original tablets in a fit of rage, Moses summons his Levite faction and says (Exodus 32:27–28):

Thus saith the lord God of Israel, put every man his sword by his side, and go in and out from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbor. And the children of Levi did according to the word of Moses: and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men.

With its seven-word preface, that order, too, obviously constituted a “commandment” of some sort. The whole book of Exodus is a commandment-rich environment, littered with other fierce orders to slay people for numberless minor offenses (including violations of the Sabbath) and also includes the sinister, ominous verse “Thou shalt not suffer [permit] a witch to live,” which was taken as a divine instruction by Christians until relatively recently in human history. Some work is obviously needed here: what is first-degree or third-degree killing and what isn’t? Distinguishing killing from murder is not a job easily left to mortals: what are we to do if God himself can’t tell the difference?


Thou shalt not commit adultery. For some reason, “the seventh” is the only one of the commandments that is still widely known by its actual number. Extramarital carnal knowledge was probably more of a threat to society when families and tribes were closer-knit, and more bound by stern codes of honor. Having provided the raw material for most of the plays and novels ever published in non–Middle Eastern languages, adultery continues to be a great source of misery and joy and fascination. Most criminal codes have long given up the attempt to make it a punishable offense in law: its rewards and punishments are carefully administered by its practitioners and victims. It perhaps does not deserve to be classed with murder or theft or perjury, which brings us to:


Thou shalt not steal. Not much to query here. Those who have worked hard to acquire a bit of property are entitled to resent those who would rather steal than work, and when society evolves to the point where there is wealth that belongs to nobody—public or social property—those who plunder it for private gain are rightly regarded with hatred and contempt. Admittedly, the prosperity of some families and some states is also founded on original theft, but in that case the same principle of disapproval can apply.


Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. This is possibly the most sophisticated ruling in the whole Decalogue. Human society is inconceivable unless words are to some extent bonds, and in legal disputes we righteously demand the swearing of oaths that entail severe penalties for perjury. Until recently, much testimony before Congress was taken without witnesses being “sworn”: this allowed a great deal of official lying. Nothing focuses the attention more than a reminder that one is speaking on oath. The word “witness” expresses one of our noblest concepts. “Bearing witness” is a high moral responsibility.

Note, also, how relatively flexible this commandment is. Its fulcrum is the word “against.” If you are quite sure of somebody’s innocence and you shade the truth a little in the witness-box, you are no doubt technically guilty of perjury and may be privately troubled. But if you consciously lie in order to indict someone who is not guilty, you have done something irretrievably foul.


Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor’s. There are several details that make this perhaps the most questionable of the commandments. Leaving aside the many jokes about whether or not it’s O.K. or kosher to covet thy neighbor’s wife’s ass, you are bound to notice once again that, like the Sabbath order, it’s addressed to the servant-owning and property-owning class. Moreover, it lumps the wife in with the rest of the chattel (and in that epoch could have been rendered as “thy neighbor’s wives,” to boot).

Notice also that no specific act is being pronounced as either compulsory (the Sabbath) or forbidden (perjury). Instead, this is the first but not the last introduction in the Bible of the totalitarian concept of “thought crime.” You are being told, in effect, not even to think about it. (Jesus of Nazareth in the New Testament takes this a step further, announcing that those with lust in their heart have already committed the sin of adultery. In that case, you might as well be hung—or stoned—for a sheep as for a lamb, or for an ox or an ass if it cometh to that.) Wise lawmakers know that it is a mistake to promulgate legislation that is impossible to obey.

There are further objections to be made. From the “left” point of view, how is it moral to prohibit people from regarding the gains of the rich as ill-gotten, or from demanding a fairer distribution of wealth? From the “right” point of view, why is it wicked to be ambitious and acquisitive? And is not envy a great spur to emulation and competition? I once had a debate on these points with Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of that consoling text When Bad Things Happen to Good People, and he told me that there is a scholarly Talmudic argument, or midrash, maintaining that “neighbor” in this context really does mean immediate next-door neighbor. For that matter, there is persuasive textual argument that “neighbor” in much of the Bible means only “fellow Jew.” But it seems rather a waste of a commandment to confine it to either the Joneses or the Semites.

What emerges from the first review is this: the Ten Commandments were derived from situational ethics. They show every symptom of having been man-made and improvised under pressure. They are addressed to a nomadic tribe whose main economy is primitive agriculture and whose wealth is sometimes counted in people as well as animals. They are also addressed to a group that has been promised the land and flocks of other people: the Amalekites and Midianites and others whom God orders them to kill, rape, enslave, or exterminate. And this, too, is important because at every step of their arduous journey the Israelites are reminded to keep to the laws, not because they are right but just because they will lead them to become conquerors (of, as it happens, almost the only part of the Middle East that has no oil).

So, then: how to prune and how to amend? Numbers One through Three can simply go, since they have nothing to do with morality and are no more than a long, rasping throat clearing by an admittedly touchy dictator. Mere fear of unseen authority is not a sound basis for ethics. The associated ban on sculpture and pictorial art should also be lifted. Number Four can possibly stay, though rest periods are not exactly an ethical imperative and are mandated by practicality as much as by heaven. At least, if shorn of its first and third and fourth redundant verses (none of which can possibly apply to non-Jews), Number Four does imply that there are rights as well as duties. For millions of people for thousands of years, the Sabbath was made a dreary burden of obligation and strict observance instead of a day of leisure or recreation. It also led to absurd hypocrisies that seem to treat God as a fool: He won’t notice if we make the elevators stop on every floor so that no pious Jew needs to press a button. This is unwholesome and over-strenuous.

As for Number Five, by all means respect for the elders, but why is there nothing to forbid child abuse? (Insolence on the part of children is punishable by death, according to Leviticus 20:9, only a few verses before the stipulation of the death penalty for male homosexuals.) A cruel or rude child is a ghastly thing, but a cruel or brutal parent can do infinitely more harm. Yet even in a long and exhaustive list of prohibitions, parental sadism or neglect is never once condemned. Memo to Sinai: rectify this omission.

Number Six: Note that mere human systems have done better subsequently in distinguishing different moral scales of homicide. Memo to Sinai: Are you morally absolute or aren’t you? If so, what about the poor massacred Midianites?

Number Seven: Fair enough if you must, but is polygamy adultery? Also, could not permanent monogamy have been made slightly more consonant with human nature? Why create people with lust in their hearts? Then again, what about rape? It seems to be very strongly recommended, along with genocide, slavery, and infanticide, in Numbers 31:1–18, and surely constitutes a rather extreme version of sex outside marriage.

Numbers Eight and Nine: Admirable. Also brief and to the point, with one rather useful nuance in the keyword “against.”

Number Ten: Does wrong to women by making them property and also necessitates continual celestial wiretapping of private thoughts. Sinister and despotic in that it cannot be obeyed and thus makes sinners even of quite thoughtful people.

I am trying my best not to view things through a smug later prism. Only the Almighty can scan matters sub specie aeternitatis: from the viewpoint of eternity. One must also avoid cultural and historical relativism: there’s no point in retroactively ordering the Children of Israel to develop a germ theory of disease (so as to avoid mistaking plagues for divine punishments) or to understand astronomy (so as not to make foolish predictions and boasts based on the planets and stars). Still, if we think of the evils that afflict humanity today and that are man-made and not inflicted by nature, we would be morally numb if we did not feel strongly about genocide, slavery, rape, child abuse, sexual repression, white-collar crime, the wanton destruction of the natural world, and people who yak on cell phones in restaurants. (Also, people who commit simultaneous suicide and murder while screaming “God is great”: is that taking the Lord’s name in vain or is it not?)

It’s difficult to take oneself with sufficient seriousness to begin any sentence with the words “Thou shalt not.” But who cannot summon the confidence to say: Do not condemn people on the basis of their ethnicity or color. Do not ever use people as private property. Despise those who use violence or the threat of it in sexual relations. Hide your face and weep if you dare to harm a child. Do not condemn people for their inborn nature—why would God create so many homosexuals only in order to torture and destroy them? Be aware that you too are an animal and dependent on the web of nature, and think and act accordingly. Do not imagine that you can escape judgment if you rob people with a false prospectus rather than with a knife. Turn off that fucking cell phone—you have no idea how unimportant your call is to us. Denounce all jihadists and crusaders for what they are: psychopathic criminals with ugly delusions. Be willing to renounce any god or any religion if any holy commandments should contradict any of the above. In short: Do not swallow your moral code in tablet form.

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We are 300 million Serfs

At Media Companies, a Nation of Serfs….YES, Timesman David Carr tells it like it is.

On the Web as off it, you make millions by exploiting others, not often by doing the work yourself.

February 13, 2011

Some of the fizz, if not a great big bubble, seems to have returned to media, depending on how you define “media.”

There have been reports in The New York Times and elsewhere that Facebook is now valued at $50 billion, and The Wall Street Journal reported that Twitter had been in low-level talks with both Google and Facebook, with some estimates putting the value of the company at $10 billion. Tumblr, the short-form blogging service, is storming along a similar, if more demure path, while Quora, a site built on user-generated questions and answers, seems to be on its way. And at the beginning of last week, The Huffington Post agreed to be sold for $315 million to AOL.

The funny thing about all these frothy millions and billions piling up? Most of the value was created by people working free.

The Huffington Post, perhaps partly in an effort to polish the silver before going on the market, did hire a number of A-list journalists, but the site’s ecosystem of citizen bloggers and its community of commenters represent some share of its value. (How much is open to debate, as Nate Silver pointed out on the FiveThirtyEight blog.) Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Quora have been positioned as social networks, but each of them hosts timely content that can also be a backdrop for advertising, which makes them much more like a media company than, say, a phone utility.

The Huffington Post, social networks and traditional media may all seem like different animals, but as advertising, the mother’s milk of all media, flows toward social and amateur media, low-cost and no-cost content is becoming the norm.

For those of us who make a living typing, it’s all very scary, of course. It’s less about the diminution of authority and expertise, although there is that, and more about the growing perception that content is a commodity, and one that can be had for the price of zero. (Content manufacturers like Demand Media that gin up $15 articles based on searches, put the price only slightly above that.) Old-line media companies that are not only forced to compete with the currency and sexiness of social media, but also burdened by a cost structure for professionally produced content, are left at a profound disadvantage.

For the media, this is a Tom Sawyer moment. “Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?” he says to his friends, and sure enough, they are soon lined up for the privilege of doing his chores. That’s a bit like how social networks get built. (Just imagine if Tom had also schooled them in the networking opportunities of the user-generated endeavor: “You’re not just painting a fence. You’re building an audience around your personal brand.”)

“The technology of a lot of these sites is very seductive, and it lulls you into contributing,” said Anthony De Rosa, a product manager at Reuters. “We are being played for suckers to feed the beast, to create content that ends up creating value for others.”

Last month, Mr. De Rosa wrote — on Tumblr, naturally — about how audiences became publishers, essentially painting the fence for the people who own the various platforms.

“We live in a world of Digital Feudalism,” he wrote. “The land many live on is owned by someone else, be it Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr, or some other service that offers up free land and the content provided by the renter of that land essentially becomes owned by the platform that owns the land.”

That may sound extreme, but think of Facebook, which is composed of half a billion freely given user profiles, along with a daily stream of videos, posts and messages. It is both a media site and a social network, and all of the content is provided free of charge. By creating a template for information and a frame around it, along with a community that also serves as an audience, this new generation of content companies have created the equivalent of a refrigerator that manufactures and consumes its own food.

I ended up thinking about all this when I was encouraged to sign up for Quora, the burgeoning question-and-answer social site, by some of my more tech-minded friends. As I was going through the registration, I had a “hey, wait a minute” moment: right now, my in-box is full of all manners of questions and requests I can’t get to, some of them from my own family. What in the world am I doing wandering out into a community of strangers to answer and post questions?

It will be interesting to see how the legions of unpaid bloggers at The Huffington Post react to the merger with AOL. Typing away for an upstart blog — founded by the lefty pundit Arianna Huffington and the technology executive Kenneth Lerer — would seem to be a little different from cranking copy for AOL, a large American media company with a market capitalization of $2.2 billion.

(And it’s going to seem very different to some other media companies. The Huffington Post has perfected the art of — how shall we say it? — enthusiastic aggregation. Most of the news on the site is rewritten from other sources, then given a single link to the original. Many media companies, used to seeing their scoops get picked off by HuffPo and others, have decided that legal action isn’t worth the bother. They might feel differently now.)

Perhaps content will remain bifurcated into professional and amateur streams, but as social networks eat away at media mindshare and the advertising base, I’m not so sure. If it happens, I’ll have no one but myself to blame. Last time I checked, I had written or shared over 11,000 items on Twitter. It’s a nice collection of short-form work, and I’ve been rewarded with lot of followers … and exactly no money. If and when the folks at Twitter cash out, some tiny fraction of that value will have been created by me.

The desire to create for the digital civic common stems from an ancient impulse, but finds remarkable expression in a digital age. Nobody knows more about that than Mayhill Fowler, the intrepid and unpaid citizen journalist working for The Huffington Post’s OffTheBus in the 2008 presidential campaign, who caught candidate Barack Obama talking about “bitter” voters who “cling to guns or religion.”

That scoop and tens of thousands of other posts are part of what AOL bought into and the owners of The Huffington Post cashed out on.

“I really don’t care that Arianna made all that money,” said Ms. Fowler. “More power to her. The original premise was not that we would get paid, so I didn’t expect to. But after the election and the fact that they nominated my work for a Pulitzer, I thought that might change. I talked to Arianna about getting paid for my work, and she strung me along for two years and then it never happened.”

Ms. Fowler no longer files free to The Huffington Post. Now, she prefers Twitter. The check is in the mail, Mayhill.


Yes, but when will it all collapse?  That is the key question.  Unpaid bloggers etc peter out over time, and the sites providing free space either grow too large not to add ads or else collapse even with ads when everyone gets bored with the sound of their own unlistened-to voice, and simply just used to the Internet as just one of the mundane tools of life.

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Mark Twain on War

Twain wrote a story, The War Prayer, in which an aged stranger enters  a church where (quoting Lewis Lapham here, in an essay The Road To Babylon  in Harpers October 2002) the congregation has been listening to a “heroic sermon about the glory to be won in battle by young patriots armed with the love of God.”  He improvises a prayer of his own:

“Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth into battle — be Thou near them! With them — in spirit — we also go forth from the sweet peace of ourbeloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire;  help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended in the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames in summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it —

For our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimmage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet!

We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.

The story didn’t get printed until 1923, thirteen years after Twain died. The editors thought it “unsuitable” to print at a moment of high and patriotic feeling, Lapham reports.

For the whole Twain story, see

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Speck by Speck, Dust Piles Up

<a href=”“><b><u>Speck By Speck, Dust Piles Up</b></u></a>

by Michael Tortorello in the New York Times, Wednesday February 9, 2011.  Witty and informative, and masterfully swinging to read, on what is a very dusty subject in less artful and cheery hands.

Although she was working with inchoate historical data, Dr. Mahowald said, “Nobody has come up to me and said, ‘I don’t believe you.’ ” Climate change seems to be one source for all the new dust. Human land use is another. Anyone looking for a scapegoat — and that’s all of us, isn’t it? — can start with the droughts and desertification in North Africa, she said.

Alternately, I asked, have researchers considered the possibility that the dust might have come from under my bed? Recently, my wool Schlitz hat fell down there. When I retrieved it, the hat had grown a full, gray rabbinical beard.

“That doesn’t have anything to do with it,” Dr. Mahowald said, without even pausing to consider my hypothesis. Her study didn’t measure dust from human sources, like our burping tailpipes and pilling sweaters, she explained. “Dust is such a vague term. I’m being very particular here: soil particles suspended in the atmosphere.”

(and more)

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How to get things done by goofing off

It is impossible to enjoy idling thoroughly unless one has plenty of work to do. – Jerome K. Jerome.

I like work, it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours. – Jerome K. Jerome

Jerome is of course quite right, but the corrolary which he didn’t discover – but we did – is that work becomes so much more motivated if we are really meant to be doing something else.

The question is how to use this principle to get work done.   If we can only demote what we want to get done to a second priority, we should be home free.  But how?  We must think up even more important work than what we intend to do, and thus make sure that doing what we want to do is a matter of neglecting the even more important task.

We have to somehow remove the sense of first priority and duty from what we want to get done, so that it counts as goofing off, even though we actually want to get it done.

Only the greatest philosophers have managed this., we believe, and so far we have not been able to unearth their secret.

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