Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Year's Books

Here’s a list of all the books I read this year, arranged alphabetically by author's last name. By the way, I actually read more books than these - only the ones I finished get counted, though.

Non-Fiction
1. Dante: Poet of the Secular World – Erich Auerbach
2. Failed States – Noam Chomsky
3. A Time to Keep Silence – Patrick Leigh Fermor
4. Return to Yesterday – Ford Maddox Ford
5. The Divided West – Jurgen Habermas
6. A Savage War of Peace: Algeria, 1954-1962 – Alistair Horne
7. The Notebooks of Joseph Joubert (selections)
8. The Burden of Responsibility: Blum, Camus, Aron, and the French 20th Century – Tony Judt
9. The Tomb in Seville – Norman Lewis
10. Facing the Night: A Diary (1999-2006) and Musical Writings – Ned Rorem
11. Freud and the Non-European – Edward Said
12. On the Rule of Law: History, Politics, Theory – Brian Tamanaha
13. Conversations with Gore Vidal – R. Peabody & L. Ebersole (Eds.)
14. Point to Point Navigation – Gore Vidal
15. The Bit Between My Teeth – Edmund Wilson
16. The Shores of Light – Edmund Wilson
17. Moscow 1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March – Adam Zamoysky

Fiction
1. Saturn – Ben Bova
2. Grifter’s Game – Lawrence Block
3. The Vengeful Virgin – Gil Brewer
4. Mrs. Bridge – Evan S. Connell
5. Falling Man – Don DeLillo
6. The Dud Avocado – Elaine Dundy
7. Crabwalk – Gunter Grass
8. The Slaves of Solitude – Patrick Hamilton
9. The Thin Man – Dashiell Hammett
10. The Farthest Shore – Ursula LeGuin
11. Dance Night – Dawn Powell
12. The Engagement – George Simenon
13. The Strangers in the House – Georges Simenon
14. The Enchanted Garden – Elizabeth von Arnim
15. Butcher’s Crossing – John Williams

Monday, November 19, 2007

Dead Vonnegut vs. Dead Mailer

The AP reports that even in death Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. is more popular than Norman Mailer (or the recently deceased William Styron, too):

No writer was more competitive, or ambitious, than Mailer, author of such epics as "The Naked and the Dead" and "The Executioner's Song," and critics would likely hand him the prize for his generation. But if sales are the measure of the public's mind, then honors clearly belong to Vonnegut...

While Vonnegut's passing last April led to a significant jump in sales for his books, the change was far smaller for the works of Mailer and Styron, both of whom, unlike Vonnegut, won Pulitzer Prizes...

[Vonnegut’s] "Cat's Cradle" has sold nearly 130,000 copies since 2006, according to Nielsen BookScan, and "Breakfast of Champions" totals 74,000. Meanwhile, Styron's "The Confessions of Nat Turner," winner of the Pulitzer in 1968, has sold less than 2,000 since 2006, while Mailer's "The Armies of the Night," a Pulitzer winner in 1969, sold just 3,000.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

How Not to Get Laid

Last night I went out barhopping in Seattle with some friends. First we went to Purr, a trendy gay bar, to meet up with some people. After an hour there, we shot off to ever-fashionable Belltown where we ended up at Amber, a hip and happening bar for people trying to hook up. A bit of a meat market - for ages ranging from early twenties to late thirties. Being in my early forties I was clearly out of my element. Nonetheless we hung out there and enjoyed watching all the guys and gals on the make. The dress was casual but nice. The girls showing abundant cleavage and the guys wearing dress shirts in various states of unbuttonedness.

As we were leaving, though, I saw something very unusual. We went past a man in his thirties sitting alone at a table and who, to judge by the pained look on his face, was having a horrible time. This was not surprising for a number of reasons. First, he was completely overdressed, wearing a tie and business slacks. But the main reason his evening was bombing out was that the guy had actually brought a book with him. That’s right, a book. And a thick one, at that. As we walked past his table I glanced over and immediately recognized the book by its cover. It was Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman, an 870-page epic Russian novel about the siege of Stalingrad.

Oh yeah, dude, that's going to work for you. Nothing gets a girl on her back faster than the campaigns of the Red Army. Hell, just whisper in her ear those sweet, sweet words - Stalin, Molotov, Yeremenko, Krylov – and she'll melt faster than a pad of butter in the hot Crimean sun. Good thinking.

Friday, November 16, 2007

The Ideal Book

Ford Madox Ford, in a 1914 review of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, pretty much nails it:

But I seem to want something fresher, something brighter, something sharper than the Myshkin Christ. For Myshkin is the same thing all over again. But if you ask me what I want…ah, there! that again is not my job. And indeed I don’t know. If I did I should try to do it myself. The only thing that I can imagine as an ideal is a book so quiet in tone, so clearly and unobtrusively worded, that it should give the effect of a long monologue spoken by a lover at a little distance from his mistress’s ear – a book about the invisible relationships between man and man; about the values of life; about the nature of God – the sort of book that nowadays one could read in as one used to do when one was a child, pressed against a tall window-pane for hours and hours, utterly oblivious of oneself, in the twilight.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Ask Andy!

Here’s an article from yesterday’s New York Times about Allison Storr, a 39-year-old New Yorker who has a rather unusual job:

Looking for someone to curate your life? Need a personal concierge whose expertise is not picking up dry-cleaning but helping chose your wardrobe, your tastes, your friends? Ms. Storr calls herself a personal manager, but her duties go far beyond that. Her clients, all of them men, pay monthly fees of $4,000 to $10,000 to have her be their personal decider in nearly all things lifestyle-related.

Calling on assistants including a stylist and a caterer, Ms. Storr helps people figure out their tastes. If they are single, she enhances their social profile (though she insists she is not a matchmaker).

The article shows her leading a couple through Chelsea art galleries, a tour “that was intended as a primer for cocktail party chatter, not collecting.” Or, apparently, art. Later, she throws a party for the couple so they can meet other people, people who one day may become their friends. The couple is very happy with Allison. “Brad will ask me a question like, ‘Where should I get a haircut?’ ”, one of them chirps, “and I’ll say, ‘Ask Allison!’ ”

One of her clients, a high-powered lawyer who wouldn’t give his name (oh, you’ll see why), has especially high praise for Allison. He even referred to her as his “outsourced wife,” then added:

“The nice thing is that when I ask her to do something, she gets it done and there’s no negative feelings.”

Ah, yes, that’s so much better than having to deal with a pesky real-life wife and her bothersome negative feelings.

Now, this is the line of work I need to go into. The only problem is that I wouldn’t last long, not because I’d be bad at it, but because I’d be so good. For example, here’s how I would instruct my clients to learn cocktail party small talk.

1. Buy a copy of The New York Times and read the article about the pathetic people who pay thousands a month to learn how to make cocktail party small talk.

2. Go to cocktail party.

3. Say “Hey, did you see that article in the Times about those pathetic people who pay thousands a month to learn how to make cocktail party small talk?”

Let the small talk begin.

Any questions?

Friday, June 01, 2007

President Leghorn

I don’t think Fred Thompson is ever going to be President of the United States. Not with a wife who looks like that (below - and check out here, too). It’s not just her seeming hotness per se, but their age difference. Here’s Thompson – some saggy old man – lolling around with some fluffy, starry-eyed blonde who looks young enough to be his grand-daughter. Ewww! It’s kind of creepy. He should be married to some dreary, old bag, not some zestful little breastful (as S.J. Perelman once put it). It just ain’t right. I don’t think America is ready yet for a Tobacco Road kind of President.

If I was advising Thompson I would tell him that the only way to overcome this creep-out factor would be to go so overboard with weird that he’ll just look like a charming eccentric rather than a horny, old, Southern goat with a thing for girls half(?) his age. He needs to play this totally over the top, become hardcore "southern gothic." Go around dressed in a white suit, wearing a panama hat and having everyone call him “Big Daddy.” Sit on porches and drink mint juleps. The whole Burl Ives thing.

And who knows? It might even catch on. Maybe America does want “Night of the Iguana” for President. I can see it now. Thompson could select Zell Miller as his running mate and they could tour the country with Fred doing his Foghorn Leghorn act and Zell going around challenging people to duels. And Mrs. Thompson can be part of it, too. She could be on the campaign poster, her busty figure squeezed into a skimpy Daisy Mae outfit. And under that, the campaign slogan: “More than the South will rise again!”

Heck, I reckon it just might work.

Monday, May 07, 2007

The Wrath of McCain

The funniest and most revealing moment in Thursday night’s Republican candidate debate came when Senator John McCain said of Osama bin Ladin:

We will catch him. We will bring him to justice and I’ll follow him to the gates of hell.

Actually, John, he’s in Pakistan now; so you really don’t need to go all the way to the gates of hell. But thanks for offering.

And thanks, too, for the tough guy talk. It seems as though that’s all we American have left. We’ve lost in Iraq. We’re losing in Afghanistan. North Korea has bested us. We’re powerless to stop Iran from developing an A-bomb. But we can always count on our leaders to step up to the mic and talk like they’re characters from a cheesy ‘80s action movie. In fact, I think the only place the US wins anymore is in the movies, so it’s not surprising that someone running for President would speak like he’s playing the President in one. And as if this hall-of-mirrors isn’t strange enough, watching McCain that night from the audience was a real ‘80s action movie star, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger – who could probably win the Presidency if only the Constitution would let him.

But still, that whole “gates of hell” nonsense was a little over the top. A tad overwrought, as it were. Not that it won’t play well. In our current moment few things say “I’m presidential” as effectively as issuing impotent threats against people who are unafraid of you. Nonetheless, the phrase seemed to be a little too much. Until it occurred to me that McCain’s talk is actually in the classic American strain, specifically its Herman Melville mode. He’s clearly, if unconsciously, echoing Ahab at the end of that most over the top and overwrought of novels, Moby Dick:

Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee.

(For a truly delicious rendering of those lines check out Ricardo Montalban in Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, the cheesiest – perhaps even the extra cheesiest - of all ‘80s action films.)

Monday, January 08, 2007

We Are the Future!

It sounds so cultivated, so refined: Pages from the Goncourt Journals. I especially like the use of the word “pages.” “Selections” would be too prosaic. “Extracts” too mechanical (as if each entry was a rotten tooth needing to be removed). But “pages” strikes just the right note – as if the reader was so sensitive that she wouldn’t want to read it too fast, not more than a few pages at a time or the experience will be spoiled. “Quiet, children, please – I’m trying to savor pages from the Goncourt Journals!”

So who were the Goncourts? They were Edmond and Jules (born in 1822 and 1830, respectively), two French brothers who pursued a literary career in the 19th century. Together they wrote novels, plays and journalism. In 1851 they began keeping a journal. After Jules death nineteen years later, Edmond decided to continue writing it alone which he did until his own death in 1896. They knew just about everyone worth knowing in French literary circles during this time and they recorded every nasty bit of gossip, slander and insult that they could.

Refined, these journals are not.

The entry for April 14, 1875 is a dramatic, though not atypical, example:

Dinner at the Café Riche with Flaubert, Zola, Turgenev and Alphonse Daudet. A dinner of men of talent who have a high opinion of each other’s work, and one which we hope to make a monthly occasion in the winters to come.

We began with a long discussion on the special aptitudes of writers suffering from constipation and diarrhea…

Spanning over forty years, these journals provide an unvarnished look at life in late 19th century France – the dinners, the receptions, the theatres, the salons, the court, the political coups, the barricades, and, of course, the brothels, always the brothels. The brothers held little back and their candid if brutal assessments of their contemporaries are one of the chief pleasures of this dish fest. Ah, and what a list of contemporaries is served up to us: Baudelaire, Flaubert, Zola (“what a whiner that fat, pot-bellied young fellow is”) Turgenev, Napoleon III, Anatole France, Oscar Wilde (“this individual of doubtful sex”) as well as other lesser known figures such as Sainte-Beuve and Theophile Gautier who at one point admits that he prefers his whores to be pre-menstrual so that he never has to worry about unwanted pregnancies. Unfortunately, no American authors appear in these pages. It would have been interesting to get the brothers opinion of Henry James (And, oh, what he could have contributed to a discussion of writers with constipation!).

This was a sordid little beau monde, a world in which the French Empress could complain about being socially upstaged in public by prominent courtesans. Not that those at the top were any better. Take, for instance, the Duc de Morny, Napoleon III’s brother and President of the Legislative Body. After his death in 1865 the Goncourts note:

The dead man’s friends were extremely worried over the disappearance of a little casket which Morny always kept on his bedside table, a casket containing portraits of all his conquests in all strata of society, photographed naked – usually with flowers decorating their privy parts. They are afraid that his personal valet has stolen it with the intention of blackmailing the ladies involved.

Not surprisingly, syphilis is, in effect, a major character in the journals. It was, after all, the little corkscrews (left) which killed Jules and the pages in which Edmond records his brother’s final dementia and death are stark and powerful. They will move you to tears.

Despite the gossip and dirt there’s no denying that the Goncourts are simply great writers. Edmond certainly knew these journals were masterpieces and in 1886 he began publishing an expurgated version of them. (A full unexpurgated version wouldn’t appear in France until 1958.) Whether describing Paris during the Commune or recreating heated literary arguments or just recording the events and thoughts for the day they write with an immediacy which is gripping. They took a seemingly ephemeral literary form (the journal) and turned it into an art. I’m almost tempted to call them “the first bloggers” except that honor would probably have to go to their predecessors in turning the mundane into the sublime – namely, Madame de Sévigné and Voltaire, both of whom turned the letter into great literature.

Once during a literary argument in a restaurant Edmond shouted out at the other guests: “We are the future!”

One can only hope.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Costa Del Bill

I admit it – I’m a big fan of Fox News Channel. Honestly, I am. If I get a chance to watch TV news I’ll almost always tune them in. And I’m not alone – they have the highest rated news shows on cable TV. And why are they so successful? Simple – they’re entertaining. They’re fun to watch. Like a circus. Or a freak show.

Now, the trick to watching Fox News is to not take it too seriously. After all, if you want real news read The New York Times. But if you want a good laugh Fox News Channel is probably the most entertaining network on TV, aside from Comedy Central. And it doesn’t surprise me at all that the best shows on the two networks (The O’Reilly Factor and Hannity & Colmes on Fox; The Daily Show and The Colbert Report on Comedy Central) have developed a strange symbiosis – echoing and mocking each other.

I admit that Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity can be annoying to watch but whenever they start to irritate me I play this sort of game with them. When they start to fulminate about immigration or Hillary Clinton or the French or whatever the outrage du jour is, I begin to picture them not as sitting behind the desk in some fancy, state-of-the-art TV studio but rather sitting on the beat-up old sofa in the basement of their Mom’s house (where they live). Instead of a nice suit, a baseball cap (Mets, probably) and a ratty T-shirt (with maybe a mustard stain on it) and crappy Bermuda shorts and so on. You get the picture. And what’s amazing about this "transformation" is that it really fits these guys. It’s a match. You can try this game on other TV news broadcasters, too, but it doesn’t always work. For instance, if you do it to Jim Lehrer of The Newshour with Jim Lehrer it’s just not believable. You start to think “Wow, he’s so smart. Why is he still living in his Mom’s basement?” And don’t even think of trying it on people like George Will or Bill Kristol or Fareed Zakaria.

Personally I find O’Reilly far more entertaining that Hannity. The latter is little more than a partisan hack dutifully reciting RNC talking points, but O’Reilly is a genuine showman – even his divaesque behavior is engaging. To put it in terms of offensive ethnic stereotypes: O’Reilly is the classic Irishman with the gift of gab, whereas Hannity is the classic Irishman happy carrying water for The Big House.

Now the best part of O’Reilly’s show is the end, which always follows a certain pattern. First, he reads the mail and comments on it. Then he plugs the latest O’Reilly-themed crap you can buy on his website. Finally, he looks into the camera, smiles, and addresses the viewer directly, “Thank you for watching The Factor and, remember, the spin stops here...(big smile)….because we’re looking out for you.” Looking out for me? That is so creepy. I don’t want you looking out for me. I’ll look out for myself, thank you very much. He really should drop that last line. It blows his whole normal-guy-from-Long-Island act. There are few things less inspiring of trust than some slimy, grinning political propagandist saying he’s “looking out for you.”

But after watching O’Reilly for years, it’s become clear to me that a certain sliminess is an integral, and even appealing, part of his persona. In fact, now that I think of it there is only one other person whom O’Reilly resembles with that winning combination of charm, cleverness and sleaze - Lex Luthor, as played by Gene Hackman in the Superman movies. Think about it. They’re both unctuous, devious, ego-centric, somewhat seedy and up to no good. They’re both warm to the idea of bombing the west coast. Heck, they even look similar (sort-of):


(So if O’Reilly is Lex Luthor, then John Gibson would have to be Otis. And Miss Teschmacher would have to be Ann Coulter…or Michelle Malkin…or Laura Ingraham…)