Sunday, December 31, 2006

My Year in Cities

Sure, might as well join the party (inspiration, Kottke):

New York NY*

Alexandria VA*

Santa Fe NM

Arroyo Grande CA

San Francisco CA*

San Jose CA

Davis CA*

Portland OR

Ashland OR*

Jerusalem IS

Sodom IS

Tiberias IS

Galilee IS

Haifa IS

Tel Aviv IS

Petra JO

Aqaba JO

Amman JO

That's the list of cities "away from home" in which I spent more than one night last year; stars represent repeat, nonconsecutive visits. New York and Alexandria are a bit of a cheat: I was living and working in the east for five months last spring, splitting my time between those two places--so I guess you could argue they were "home" for a while (but I never spent seven consecutive nights in either place--lots of Amtrak). "IS" and "JO" are, of course, Israel and Jordan, where Mrs. B. and I tromped over archaeological sites last fall. I have no idea that these are bona fide postal codes, but they look right. Santa Fe and San Francisco are opera visits; Portland and Arroyo Grande are grandchildren.

Counsel in a Dark Hour

The best thing fore being sad ... is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then--to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.

Merlin, to Wart
TH White, The Once and Future King

(Um, anatomies?)

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Bear With Me Here...

Light posting at the moment because I'm putting stuff together to showcase starting Jan. 2 when I guest-blog at Creditslips. I've got 15 on the shelf so far, many with a "bankruptcy and literature" bent. Watch for 'em, at Creditslips, and cross-posted here.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Wish I Could Write Like This


I suppose I'd get lots of junk mail...

The Sopranos RIP

(Caution, plot spoiler ahead-- The Soporanos Season #6).

Late in the only dull trip to Paris ever filmed, Carmela Soprano asks Rosalie Aprile about her dead husband and son. Forget about it, says Rosalie, it’s over.

Rosalie was telling us something the rest of us—at least the DVD watchers—are just finding out: The Sopranos is over. It outlasted Six Feet Under; it bid fair to outlast The Barney Extravaganza. It died, as so many Sopranos characters die, in a flash of violence: Vito Spatafore plugged Jackie Aprile in the back; so also Junior Soprano plugged his nephew Tony in the belly (Episode #66). Unlike Jackie, Tony reappeared, along with the rest of the gang, but transmogrified into a zombie for some sort of weird mismarketed video game. The series itself—The Sopranos we all knew and loved—is over, done, finito, kaput, bought the farm.

To be fair, The Sopranos, in going to sleep with fishes, did not, if you get my meaning, jump the shark: the directors seem to have been at pains to try to sidestep the kind of absurdity that makes so many good tragedies end in farce. But at a price: the price of not going crazy is to go slack, to kill time, to twiddle the thumbs, to play out the option. A dream sequence if perhaps forgivable, but not if it extends over two episodes. A gay plot actually has possibilities, although nobody seemed to know quite what to do with it. How anyone could make a trip to Paris actually boring is surely beyond most viewers’ ken, but there it is, ready to be recycled in film class as a horrible example (couldn’t we at least have had a bit of girl-on-Frenchie action with her Parisian date?).

This flaccid coda does have one curious byproduct, perhaps unintended. In seeing all the old characters replay all their old character-tics, it sinks in on us: these people really are like this; they are not going to change; there will be no eleventh-hour epiphany, the phone will not ring and the governor will not issue a reprieve. They are just a nasty, unpleasant, irredeemably worthless lot. This is a worthwhile insight, but not consolatory: the shock is gone; you just steel yourself for the next savage beating, and speculate on the odds that the victim will (or will not) survive.

There are bright spots: Vince Curatola as Johnny Sack, with all his seething intelligence, remains one of the most compelling pieces of characterization in the whole show, and it is a rotten shame to see him off to the big house. But this might be just that he came late to the party. Of the original crew, the only one that doesn’t seem to me to be just going through the motions is Michael Imperioli as Christopher Moltisanti: he has an unmatched knack for being convincingly dangerous and ugly, and yet at the same time retaining just a whiff of irony and self-criticism, so that for a moment you think he might be kidding—but it passes and you find yourself repelled all over again.

Too bad it happened this way, but it almost always does: every show is in competition with itself after the first few episodes, and the game gets tougher as the ante gets higher. About the only one of my own favorites that did not outlive itself is Sandbaggers, the unmatchable British spy thriller—but that may have something to do with the fact that the auteur disappeared in his small plane, never to be heard from again.

And I have to grant (to hope) that with a Seventh Season yet to come, there are possibilities of something better. I admit I am still curious to know what becomes of daughter Meadow, the Lisa Simpson of the Soprano family, the apple of papa’s eye and the one who looks like she just might grab her Ticket Out of this dead-end world—but my own guess is that she comes to an ugly end, perhaps at her father’s hand, surely before his eyes. That, and the more general question of who (if anybody) will be left standing when the King and the Queen and the Prince all die and Fortinbras returns from the wars—I admit it is enough to keep me suckered in until the end. But grumbling and full of nostalgia for the old days when the old days, when the series was really good.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Chivalry Not Dead

This little woman's body is agile and youthful. I've seen her naked, and it's all natural. ... She looks better with her clothes off than on...The little woman is perfect, vertically and horizontally.

An appreciative Conrad Black extols the virtues of his wife, Barbara Amail, at her 60th birthday party. London Review of Books p3, 14 December 2006, apparently quoting Tom Bower, Conrad and Lady Black (2006). The party, LRB adds, cost $62,780, two thirds of it "billed to Hollinger, the publicly quoted company which owned the Telegraph."

Afterthought: My friend Roy met his wife at the swimming pool. He said he married her so he could see what she looked like with her clothes on.

What, Me Worry?

Hey, Palookaville is 230 feet above sea level, so I can rest easy.

Now this:


Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Uncle Tom's Cabin of Commercial Law

(Cross-posted from CreditSlips)

In an earlier post, I offered a few acerb thoughts about William Dean Howells and what I might perhaps have called the Jimmy Stewartization of bankruptcy. I could have generalized here: one of the great themes of 19th Century American is what you might call the Response to Commerce—together with a theme I did not mention before, namely the relationship between the marketplace and women.

For my money, there are two great sources here—one, George Santayana in his seminal Genteel Tradition essays (link), and the other, more directly relevant, Ann Douglas’ classic The Feminization of American Culture (1977) (link). Douglas catches the essence of her own work in this discussion of the first great domestic potboiler, the Uncle Tom's Cabin of commercial law-- The Wide, Wide World (link), by Susan Warner:

The story apparently turns on the unwillingness of the old-fashioned little girl, Ellen Montgomery, to participate in the ‘wide, wide world’ of masculine competition and business into which a cruel fate thrust her. All Ellen’s miseries begin when her father is clumsy enough to lose a vital lawsuit, and with it, his income. Mr.Montgomery’s surly incompetence and insecure aggressiveness threaten the idyll of feminine sensibility shared by his wife and daughter. Ellen makes a rather unfilial point of evading her father, but she cannot long escape the forces which he represents. When her ailing mother ends her off alone on her first adult mission to select some material at a store, a rude and busy clerk cheats, humiliates, and dismisses her because she is unused to the chicanery of commerce, because she is a child and a girl. Although a benevolent elderly gentleman indignantly intervenes and Ellen accomplishes her errand, Warner has made her point.

Douglas, at least, has no doubt as to what that point is:

Ellen is completely dislocated from her economic past; those who control the production of her apparel are utterly foreign to her. It is Ellen’s distinction that she must be rescued from the world. She never requests or wishes in any way actually to function within her society. Brewing consolatory cups of tea for her several beloved and diseased lady friends is the full extent of her productive effort. Her undeclared hostility to her culture’s competitive forces is too enormous to allow her to contribute to its economic life. The Bible and those who love it are Ellen’s only business.

Douglas embroiders this sketch into a larger theme: a more general conspiracy of (otherwise powerless) women and clergymen into a general posture of clucking disapproval over the heart of American economic life.

It would be fascinating but, lucky for me, beyond the scope of this blog entry, to trace the cultural history that links the feminization of culture to the feminization of bankruptcy.

Personal Aside: my mother and her siblings were orphaned in childhood, in the respect that their father was carried off in a bout of pneumonia, not litigation.

Their mother held the family together in a prodigy of heroism and good luck that I can only begin to fathom. The sisters—there were five of them—cut their literary teeth on The Wide Wide World. Years later in adulthood, they had come to recognize that it was trash. Yet the old appeal remained, and they could reduce themselves to rueful hysterics by remembering its mawkish energy.

Greenstein on Ford

As an appraisal of President Gerald Ford, this is probably hard to beat. It’s from Fred I. Greenstein, The Presidential Difference¨Leadership Styles from FDR to George W. Bush 122-4 (2d ed. 2004):

Public Communication … He was a plodding speaker, whose rhetorical limitations mad him less able than a Roosevelt, Kennedy, or Reagan to put a good face on political misfortune. Ford also resembled Truman in being verbally accident prone…

Organizational Capacity Ford’s organizational legacy includes his painfully won demonstration that it is no longer feasible to operate an effective presidency without an able and experienced White House chief of staff. There is in general much to be learned form the intelligently structured staff procedures of Ford’s White House. Of particular interest is his Economic Policy Board, which employed the principles of multiple advocacy that served well in Eisenhower’s foreign policy advisory arrangements. A policy mechanism like the EPB would have been useful to a number of Ford’s successors, particularly Carter.

Political Skill Ford’s political skills were those of an experienced legislative pragmatist. …

Vision It might be assumed that the eminently practical Gerald Ford possessed little in the way of political vision. But in fact he had clear, internally consistent policy convictions, particularly in the domestic sphere. ….

Cognitive Style Despite his portrayal on Saturday Night Live as a presidential dullard, Ford brought an open mind and thoughtful intelligence to his responsibilities. Alan Greenspan, who chaired Ford’s Council of Economic Advisers CEA) … [observed] that Ford found it enjoyable to discuss economics with him, even when there was no pending decision that made doing so necessary. …

Emotional Intelligence It is not necessary to depict Ford as a closet intellectual to appreciate the personal strengths he brought to the presidency. He was patently emotionally stable, and his self-esteem was not wrapped up in the fate of his policies. “You never got negative emotional vibrations from the man,” Greenspan recollected, “except when he was mad for reasons that were absolutely objective.” …

[Greenstein's appraisal of the current incumbent is perhaps more charitable than that of most readers of this blog. It would be interesting to know if his 2006 views are any different from those he uttered two years ago.]

I'll Be Guest-Blogging

Okay, it's a done deal: I'll be guest-blogging starting January 2 over at Credit Slips, a (the?) premier blog for discussing issues of credit law, credit markets, etc. (including bankruptcy). It's a distinguished lot over there and I am honored to be in their company (you want to look smart, hang around with smart people). I'll cross-post over here, but come pay them a call--lots of interesting stuff, and lots to learn (link).

Remembering the Ford Administration

They say the job of every (Republican?) president is to make his predecessor look good. The web is awash with commentary this morning on the passing of Gerald Ford; I cheerfully align myself with the “Ford was a decent man” faction—virtually the last American president who could do the job without letting his ego get in the way.

Dissenters from this view cite, as exhibit #1, the fact the Ford White House was the same gang of ruffians who created the current mess—Cheney and Rumsfeld. It’s hard to argue with this but I would like to throw out one idea that I haven’t seen discussed elsewhere. This comes from my friend Gladys, an old-time East Coast GOP pro, who remembers a day when she thought you could be both a Republican and a feminist. Gladys recalls:

I think it is the heart surgery. I remember Cheney from the Ford administration. You could deal with him. He was a hard Wyoming conservative, but you could deal with him. He stood for what he stood for, but that was that. These days he is bitter and angry and dark. He’s had the surgery; he never really came back. He’s an old man and he is near the end and it shows.

It’s worth a thought. And no, not really Gladys. Nobody is named Gladys. But since I am quoting without permission (and paraphrasing from memory, at that)…

Postscript: Two other quickies. One, remember it was the Reagan right who undertook to destroy Ford for ideological impurity. And two, recall the 76 election: Ford v. Carter. On the decency scale, things have changed, not so?

Monday, December 25, 2006

Oh, Why Not...

Thanks, Toni, and get well soon...

The Meaning of Chrstmas

Herod the Great, horrified at a new surge of religious enthusiasm, reflects on his tiny victories in ther cause of good order:

Barges are unloading soil fertilizer at the river wharves.
Soft drinks and sandwiches may be had in the inns at reasonable prices.
Allotment gardening has become popular.
The highway to the coast goes straight up over the mountains and the truck drivers no longer carry guns.
Things are beginning to take shape.
It is a long time since anyone stole the park benches or murdered the swans.
There are children in this province who have never seen a louse, shopkeepers who have never handled a counterfeit coin, women of forty who have never hidden in a ditch except for fun.

WH Auden, For the Time Being

To Get You Started for Next Year

A couple of late Chrismas items (new improved browser doesn't handle pictures right, I'll spare you the details).

First, from Underbelly's Cape Cod bureau:

Yep, Lobster pots. And now, from Underbelly's Alabama bureau:

Thanks, Sally and Ivan. I'll keep your identities confidential.

"Have Her Stripped and Washed and Brought To My Tent"

Here’s a cute irony for your holiday enjoyment. The subject is Genghis Khan, man of the millennium, ruler over all the tribes, coordinator of the Mongols and the Tatars, and heavy hitter in the DNA leagues, with an estimated 17 million living descendants (link).

It seems that Genghis, for all his transplanetary rutting, was in his own way something of a family man, with his faithful wife, Börte, and their four recognized sons who fought alongside their father but eyed each other warily as time approached for the inevitable succession. Genghis died in in 1227; in the event he outlived the eldest of the four sons, Jochi, who died earlier the same year. Effective power passed to his number three son, ögödeI. This ögödei died in 1241 leaving a whole raft of potential succession claimants. One was Batu, son of the deceased Jochi. Another was Möngke, son of Tolui, himself the fourth son of Genghis.

An uneasy kind of stasis ensued, as each of the claimants positioned himself and assayed the strength of his adversaries. Batu had perhaps a better claim to succession was his cousin. But Batu was off in Europe at that point. Whatever his appetite for power, a reasonable evaluation suggested that he wouldn’t be able to control both his European holdings and the steppe empire from a single center.

And so Batu made a far-sighted offer: he agreed to yield the steppe empire to Möngke, in exchange for independence in the west.

And that is how it came to passs. Möngke became the Great Khan. Batu became the progenitor of what history knows at “the Golden Horde,” the dominating force for generations in Russia, the person who imposed what Russians still talk of as “the Mongol-Tatar yoke.”

So, where is the irony? Just here. Over Batu, son of Jochi, there lay a disabling shadow: evidently Börte, wife of Genghis, mother of Jochi, had been kidnapped just nine months before his birth. Mongol sources pass in silence over this episode in the history of the ruling family. But Jochis’ very name means “visitor,” or “guest.”

Translated: of all the 17 million descendants of Genghis, one who may never have qualified is the Khan of the Golden Horde, the old man’s eldest son.

Credit: irony spotted by Mrs. B, during a Christmas-Eve chat in the hot tub. Family history from Thomas J. Barfield, The Perilous Frontier (Blackwell Paperback 1992) and Jack Weatherford, Genghis Khan (2004).

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Sydney and Ogden

The other day in discussing Oliver Hereford, I wrote that he stood “somewhere between Sydney Smith and Ogden Nash.” I’m really not at all clear what I had in mind in that comparison—probably just sloppy writing. Well: Nash and Smith both were famous for their wit, but they were at least a century apart in time, and perhaps even further apart in style or general sensibility.

Smith, who flourished in late Georgian England, was perhaps the world’s first modern celebrity preacher, the guy who did so much to give the Anglican clergy the rep of being just too cool for words. In a way he brought this on himself, but in a more important way, the charge is unfair. In fact was a person of great civility and generosity in an age when neither thrived. For all his drawing-room manner, he opposed slavery and supported Catholic emancipation in an age when neither position was a ticket to the best society.

Nash seems to me a more complicated case. When I was young (and had not heard of Smith), I thought Nash was the model of wit. These days I find him mostly (although not entirely) unreadable. Hard for me to say just why, except perhaps that Smith was light-hearted in an age that took itself too seriously, while Nash was facetious an era that didn’t take itself seriously enough.

Sydney Smith quotes abound on the web. Here are some samples:

A great deal of talent is lost to the world for want of a little courage. Every day sends to their graves obscure men whose timidity prevented them from making a first effort.

Marriage resembles a pair of shears, so joined that they cannot be separated; often moving in opposite directions, yet always punishing anyone who comes between them.

Never talk for half a minute without pausing and giving others a chance to join in.

I’m the proud possessor of a tattered old Penguine Paperback edition The Smith of Smiths a biography by Hesketh Pearson who was a minor celebrity in his own right—and so, a double artifact. Necessarily, I want to be more careful with Nash. Most of the verse, as I say, now strikes me as dreadful. I am startled to learn that he was lyricist for the Broadway musical “One Touch of Venus,” collaborating with Kurt Weill and S. J. Perelman. And I do like:

Girls who are bespectacled
Seldom get their necktacled.


Anna Quindlen finally say something smart:
I would be the most content if my children grew up to be the kind of people who think decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Darwin Award Candidate

One of my fave movie scenes is the one in Body Heat where Mickey Rourke tells William Hurt he isn’t smart enough to be a criminal. Now this (link).

Update: Eeuw, a Wiki page, with a link to the complete correspondence. Too bad he isn't important: he could go on Larry King.

Update to update: I just went and actually read the correspondence and man, it is hilarious. Squirrels and pigeons indeed.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Says It All

Is this not the most representative news story of our time?
A Nigerian arrested in Rosendhal the Netherlands was carrying 186 false papers, including 29 Nigerian passports, 30 British passports, 74 Dutch work permits; and 18 birth certificates. Police say they haven’t yet identified him.

--From a press cutting read at the BBC's "News Quiz"

Shortest Day of the Year, With Bird

Shortest day of the year. My mother liked this poem:

I heard a bird sing
In the dark of December
A magical thing
And sweet to remember

You are nearer to spring
Than you were in September
I heard a bird sing
In the dark of December

She used it on her Christmas card in about 1957. So far as I know, she had no idea where it came from. Nor did I, but the magic of Google tells me it is the work of a certain Oliver Hereford, otherwise unknown to me, who survives in a few webified one-liners and short versus, as in:

Diplomacy: lying in state.

A woman’s mind is cleaner than a man’s: she changes it more often.

There are more fish taken out of a stream than ever were in it.

The bird verse pops up in kindergarten songbooks. I admit, I have tried to enforce it on the odd infant myself. There’s a poem about a hippopotamus here, but for my money the hippo has inspired better.

Taken together, these fragments suggest a particular time and milieu—somewhere between Sydney Smith and Ogden Nash. On these samples, it is perhaps easy enough to see why he is forgotten. Still, the bird verse is memorable enough that I hope it cuts at least ten minutes off Hereford’s time in purgatory.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Best Sales Pitch Ever

It's a must-read for anybody who'se gonna die.

--Deepak Chopra on his new book

More on the Book I Wish I'd Read

More on The Bible Unearthed: you can get a hint of what this book is about without ever opening the cover without ever cracking the cover by taking a look at the Amazon reviews. At the moment, there are 97, with an average rank of four stars. But 45 of them give five stars and another 11 give only one—and probably would give zero if they had the chance. For some portion of the reading public, suggesting that the Bible not inerrant, is not a cool thing to do.

It will be obvious that I am not of the inerrancy party, but I don’t want to appear dismissive here: this kind of thing has great meaning to people and it’s not at all surprising if they seem to feel dissed or affronted when somebody challenges a deeply held belief.

In response, I’m sure I can’t save any souls here, but for whatever it is worth: if FS are right, then the Bible is not what we (once thought it was?). But if they are right, then the creation of the Bible has got to qualify as one of the great cultural achievements of human history: they’ve created a culture, a history, a reason for being—and they put it all down in a book. As FS insist, nobody else has anything like it:

The Greek epics and myths spoke only by metaphor and example: Mesopotamian and Persian religious epics offered cosmic secrets but neither earthly history nor a pracxtical guide to life. The Hebrew Bible offered both, providing a narrative framework in which every Jew could identify both family and national history. In short, the saga of Israel that had first crystallized in the time of Josiah became the world’s first fully articulated national and social compact, encompassing the men, women and children, then rich, the poor, and the destitute of an entire community.

There’s a scene in a Stanley Elkins novel (I quote from memory) where God says—alright, you want to know why I did it? I’ll tell you why I did it! Because it is a good story, that’s why!

“Is that all?” says Jesus, rubbing his stigmata. “All?”

Indeed it is all, and perhaps no cultural product has ever done better.

Thanks again, Joe.

The Book I Wish I'd Read

Here’s the book I wish I had read before I went to look at archaeological sites in Israel/Jordan last fall: The Bible Unearthed, by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman (Free Press 2001) (link). It’s an assessment of how the archaeological evidence fits with the Bible, or more precisely the Old Testament, or more precisely the “Deuteronomistic History”—the material in Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings that makes up about 25 percent of the Old Testament.

No point in suspense here: FS think the archaeological evidence does not support the narrative very well. But it does support a historical narrative all its own, and explains how the remarkable Deuteronomistic History came into being—together, cultural artifacts of the first order in their own right.

More precisely, FS find no convincing evidence of (1) an Egyptian captivity; (2) a flight out of Egypt; (3) military conquest of the Canaanites by the Hebrews; (4) a “unified kingdom” of Israel and Judah (or at any rate, not before, say, the Third Century BCE). They seem willing to accept that there was a King David and King Solomon, but they treat them as minor local strongmen in a political backwater. They do accept the notion of a strong kingship in “Israel”—i.e., the “northern half” of the supposed joint kingdom. But their candidate is the family of Ahab—he who is perhaps the most excoriated of all historical figures in the Old Testament text.

What can possibly be going on here? FS don’t doubt that there were a “people” in what we now call Israel from perhaps late in the second millennium, who spoke a form of Hebrew and knew of a God named YHWH—Jehovah. They find reason to accept the presence of the “strong kingdom in the north—see Ahab, supra. But they believe that the south –“Judah”—was poorer, weaker, less populous, until the Eighth Century BCE, when the Babylonians conquered the northerners and carried them off into captivity. Rather suddenly and unexpectedly, Judah becomes central, populous, and indispensable to the survival of a more or less common culture. Then—and only then, FS argue does someone (or some group of people) generate the narrative that forms so central a part of our own experience.

Of course this is not going to be everybody’s dish of tea. If you are going to criticize it, I can think of at least two important lines of approach. One, if you believe in Biblical inerrancy, then this is all bollocks from the get-go. And two, whether or not you believe in Biblical inerrancy, there may be all kind of arguments over issues of, e.g., dating and interpretation. It is hard for me to imagine any two archaeologists agreeing with all this stuff in detail, any more than they agree on, for example, the historic home of the Indo-European language.

Either way, however, this might make a pretty good guidebook for the amateur archaeologist. FS do as good a job as you can expect (within the limits of the format) to lay out the substructure of their argument and, so far as I can tell, a fair-minded job of exposing its limitations. Still, you are left with an excellent framework for considering why it is you might care about particular archaeological sites and what it is you might want to look for and at when you are there.

I’ve got more I want to say about this book, but this post has gone on too long already. I may do another one later.

Credit: Thanks, Joe!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

I'm Thinking, I'm Thinking

Just heard Tucker Carlson say that the media is dumber than it is left-wing and lazier than it is ideological.

I would agree that Tucker Carlson is dumber than he is left wing. But is he lazier than he is ideological? Hm, a close one...

It Comes, It Goes...

(Coss-posted from CreditSlips)

Alistair Cooke on one facet of the New England economy during the second world war:
"Up in Springfield, Connecticut, the federal bankruptcy court closed down for lack of business."
--Alistair Cooke, American Homefront 1941 to 1942 at 282

Thanks, Joel.

From The Comfort of Your Computer...

Best seen over a glass of mulled wine:

Thanks, Susan.

Fn: Susan reminds me that I should credit: Kenny Karst, Half Dome from Cooks Meadow, 17 December 2006.

Oh, Isn't That Special...


Thanks, John, I guess.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Galula on Counterinsurgency

A few days ago I mentioned David Galula's classic work on counterinsurgency. I said that from the price of used books on Amazon, I have to infer he must be popular in some circles.

Turns out (surprise!) I am not the first to notice. Here are some exceprts, compiled back in 2005, by the Washington Post's estimable Thomas Ricks: link.

Actually, This Guy Might Be Right

[But nobody should ever, ever, take investment advice from me. Ever.]

Takes a while to load, but worth it.

Fn.: Am told that if you get invited to party at Sam's house, you get to play paintball. Of such stuff are investment advisers made.

Thanks, Kenrick.

Word for the Day

I didn't say the meat was tough; I just asked 'whatever happened to the old horse that used to stand outside the door?'

--WC Fields (thanks, BBC)

How Do You Parody This Society, Anyway?

Ah, I am just too skeptical: turns out that the Dragon Sausage story is true after all. After yesterday's post, I stayed curious, so I got online to the Powys county council and sent them an email asking, come on now, isn't this really an urban legend? In response, they sent me the "PR 3026," the news release posted below.

Next thing you know, they'll be telling me that Oswald acted alone.


Here's the press release:

News Release
For Immediate Release
Welsh Dragon Sausage

In response to various reports in the media regarding the product 'Welsh Dragon Sausage', the following statement has been issued by Powys County Council's Trading Standards Service:"The Council has no issue with the use of the word 'Welsh Dragon'. Obviously we do not nor do we expect anyone else to believe that the sausage contains 'welsh dragon meat' or whatever that maybe as has been quoted in various sections of the media.

"Our advice to the company concerned being simply that when 'sausages' are sold, whether pre-packed or loose, they are clearly labelled to inform consumers of the type of meat e.g. pork or beef that is contained in the product. We feel this to be a perfectly reasonable legal requirement and due to consumer preferences, information which they are entitled to know.

"We are disappointed that the above advice has been taken totally out of context in a number of media reports. We will continue to advise the company concerned as their 'home authority' on food labelling issues as we have done for a number of years."

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Hearwarming Nativity Report

A Woman Named Mary Is With Child, But Not by Act of Man - A Top Secret Report on the Means by Which Vice President Cheney's Lesbian Daughter Became Pregnant."

Link here. This guy is good. Thanks, Sally.


There’s a fascinating Sunday Discussion Group over The Carpetbagger Report (link), one of my favorite political websites. The kickoff point is a proposal by Cato Insttitute’s Brink Lindsey, who wants to fashion a new breed of liberaltarians.” Apparently Lindsey is trying to fashion some sort of détente between the cultural liberalism of the Democrats and the economic liberalism of, well of Brink Lindsey.

The proposal certainly invites serious exploration, but what fascinates me is the tone of the CB comments—last time I looked, they appeared overwhelmingly negative, at least in tone if not in number (I didn’t count)—coupled with a distinct sense that the readers feel they are being had: that Lindsey has devised a cunning trap, and that they need to be careful lest they spill into it.

This works for me on so many levels. One, the hostility of the response that the readers must find it at least beguiling—otherwise they could perfectly well blow it off as beneath contempt. But from another point of view, go back to the original idea: pretty clearly Lindsey has soured on his “traditional” allies—and who can blame him for that? He’s looking for someone, anyone, to provide him a home.

My own guess is that American “libertarians” will never find a home in a two-party system. They might be able to function in a continental system where there often is one party committed to both open markets and cultural freedom (not the British liberals, god knows—something more French or Italian). The name for such parties is “pretty much irrelevant.” But it does have the constructive consequence of thrusting libertarians into the rough-and-tumble of mainstream politics, where they have to spend at least some of their time thinking through the implications of their beguiling but often half-baked proposals—an obligation from which United States libertarians have pretty much stayed free.

[FWIW, that last seems to me to be a pretty good tag line for the whole Lindsey project. I liked Against the Dead Hand—thought-provoking and with some good, worthwhile examples. But he seemed at his best when he was writing about stuff he knew least about.]

No Dragons Were Harmed

My friend Joel reports:

A couple of months ago a sausage manufacturer in Wales was forced by Trading Standards officials to drop the name of his very popular “Welsh Dragon Sausages”—because they were made of pork, not dragons!

An urban legend, say I. True story, says Joel. Not in Snopes. Anyway, it is sourced: to the BBC (link). And as it happens, a Google search for “dragon sausage powys county wales” turns up 382 hits.

But wait. These hits are virtually all repeats of the original story. They all seem to source the same person: one Jon Carthew, speaking for something called “Black Mountans Smokery in Powys.” Evidently he reports a “warning letter” from the Powys county council’s trading standards department. A later Times story says that the product “will have to be renamed” because the manufacturer “could face prosecution”—but this story appears to be nothing but a hyped up version of the original BBC account.

Un hnh. So far as I can tell, no real human regulator is ever named in these stories—only “a spokesman.” Powys is a small place, not so? Just how many brothers-in-law does Mr. Carthew have? Meanwhile, a search at the Powys County website yields a lot of stories about “dragon”—all sports, so far as I can tell. Anyway, none about “dragon sausage.

But more generally—so far as I can tell, nobody has a motive to contradict this yarn. Certainly not Carthew, who has got the best publicity he’s got in years. Nor the regulators who at worst are hoping it will just go away. And by all means not the gazillions of internet readers (guilty, your honor) who are just waiting to pounce on any instance of bureaucratic blindness. And of course, certainly not your friends at BBC (Wales!), whose job is to provide you with harmless entertainment.

Verdict: not proven. But I do recall hearing that Black Mountain has taken steps to conform. No, they are not changing the label. But henceforth they will be including real dragon.

Fn: Meanwhile, my friend John says I have been taken in by the Swedes—apparently “fjuckby” doesn’t mean what you think it means. Put a sock in it, John—nobody wants to know the truth here.

No Accounting for Tastes

From the NYT obit of "Ruth Webb, Talent Agent Who Revived Flagging Careers." Apparently Ms. Webb represented, inter alia, Tonya Harding, "the figure skater disgraced by her role in the attack on Nancy Kerrigan." And:

Ms. Harding was offerd a Woody Allen movie, but turned it down, saying she abhorred the director's morals.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

From the Bin: Ah, The University

This must be the time of year when high school seniors are finishing up their college application packets:

"Well, Jack, you are now done with school. No doubt you are looking forward to going to the university."

"Yes, Dad, I am," said the son.

"You show good judgment," said the father. "The best years of one's life are unquestionably those which are spent at the university. Apart from the vast honeycomb of learning, the mellow voices of the professors, the venerable gray buildings, and the atmosphere of culture and refinement, there is the delight of being in possession of a comfortable allowance."

"Yes, Dad," said the son.

"Rooms of one's own," continued the father. "Little dinners to one's friends, endless credit with tradespeople, pipes, cigars, claret, Burgundy, clothes.”

“Yes, Dad,” said the son.

“There are exclusive little clubs,” said the old man, “all sorts of sports. May Weeks, theatricals, balls, parties, rags, binges, scaling of walls, dodging of proctors, fun of every conceivable description.”

“Yes! Yes, Dad!” Cried the son.

“Certainly nothing in the world is more delightful than being at the university,” said the father. “The springtime of life! Pleasure after pleasure! The world seems a whole dozen of oysters, each with a pearl in it! Ah, the university! However, I am not going to send you there.”

“Then why the hell do you go on so about it!” said poor Jack.

“I did so in order that you might not think I was carelessly underestimating the pleasures I must call on you to renounce,” said his father. “You see, Jack, my health is not of the best; nothing but champagne agrees with me, and if I smoke a second-rate cigar, I get a vile taste in my mouth. . . . “

John Collier, "Ah the University,"
in Fancies and Goodnights (NYRB Classics 2003)

[I did an Amazon review here.]

Where Will You Spend Eternity?

How come my kids don't have this much enterprise?

Friday, December 15, 2006

This Might Just Be True...

The highest ratings in TV history were the night Home Shopping Network sold Spock's ears. Per Letterman.

[But I do not believe that no one has a birthday on March 16.]

Kalle Anka

Okay, so have you had it with A Wonderful Life? Thoughtcha did. You want some real Christmas culture? Then carry yourself away to Sweden, where every Christmas afternoon they settle down to a session of Kalle Anka Och Hans Vänner Önskar God Jul--that would be Donald Duck And His Friends Wish You A Merry Christmas. Evidently the government tried to crack down on it as unseemly--which ought to have been predictible as the most futile use of government resources since "Whip Inflation Now " buttons.

I'm not sure this (with a bit of chipmunk-on-chipmunk action, if I read it right) is the right one, but it ought to be close: link
. Enjoy, and if you can find the real link, give me a headsup.

Footnote: My cousin Dave weighs in with this one. Hint: Fjuckby.

A Bankruptcy Twopher

Two bits of bankruptcy stuff.

One: a Christmas party with some of my bankruptcy buds last night--these are the guys who do the business cases (where some actual money sloshes around) as distinct from the consumer cases (where people fight tooth and toenail over nothing).

They pretty much agreed that business is off. They don't actually complain--hey, they have some sense of perspective--but they all know it would be a more convivial party if (t0 paraphrase Dylan Thomas) lack of money would begin to roll in.

They figure business will come back. These things run in cycles and some days you eat the bear, some days the bear eats you. Where will the business come from? Well, housing, they say. Residential construction. Not here, of course, but in general. Also hedge funds, and just exactly how do simple, barefoot country bankruptcy lawyers get a piece of that?

I don't know how to get a piece of a hedge fund but I do hear a ring of familiarity here: these guys--like, perhaps, the human race in general--always seem to be assuming that the real party is going on just down the street. As to housing, I'm not sure I agree that it will pass us by: I've seen a condo listed for $700,000-plus here in Palookaville, then knocked down to around six, and still not moving.

Two: I hear that Harry Dixon died last night, at home in Omaha. Harry was an item common enough in the business world, but rarer among lawyers: a guy with big entrepreneurial dreams, and a tendency every so often to jump the rails Harry's main claim to public recognition will be that he virtually created the American Bankruptcy Institute, far and away the most prominent chowder and marching society among denizens of this peculiar craft. A thousand people had the idea (hey, I had the idea). But Harry had the follow through, and I hope he was proud of it.

As a lawyer, Harry was never short of ideas which is, as I suggest, a mixed blessing: some of Harry's came from the gamma quadrant. I remember standing in the back of the classroom one day in the 80s while Harry lectured an audience of lawyers on the devices he deployed to help a debtor client save his farm. "And then we tried...and then we tried...and then we tried." The fellow standing next to me, a respected leader of the bar, was gasping and gagging: oh my God, who is this guy.? Answer: Harry was the kind of guy you would want to know if you were in one whale of a jam, and needed to come up with just one more reason why you should not be sent gurgling down the tube.

Heaven bless you, Harry. You weren't always easy to follow, but you will be hard to forget.

Davenport on Thoreau

People have been telling me I should read Guy Davenport. I've put it off because they showcase him back in Kentucky, which is not a recommendation--it allows you to confuse him with the tobacco farmer and all round sentimentalist, Wendell Berry, whom I can pretty much do without.

But suitably braced, I have now laid my hands on a copy of Davenport's Death of Picasso. It's distinctive, I'll say that for it. Before making much further comment, I think I'll let it sink in for a bit. But I do like Davenport's introduction of this, from Thoreau, as "a paragraph which no intelligence can understand:

I long ago lost a hound, a bay horse, and a tuertledove, and am still on their trail. Many are the travellers whom I have spoken concerning them, describing their tracks and what calls they answered to. I have met one or two who had heard the hound, and the tramp of the horse, and even seen the dove disappear behind a cloud, and they seemed as anxious to recover them as if they had lost them themselves.

Nothing Personal, I Suppose...

Language notes from all over:

At the cashier’s post in a restaurant outside Fresno the other day, I said

--How’s your day going so far?

She gave me a guarded look for a moment, then broke into what I am pleased to call a lascivious wink.

Well, hey. But a moment later she pointed to the cardboard Santa. She smiled again--more sedately this time-- and said

--Christmas decorations!

Oh, got it. She doesn’t speak English, or not enough for “How’s your day going so far?” So I revised:

--Have a nice day.
--You too.

Well, I enjoyed the lascivious wink.

Non-Functional Senators

The world is afire with stories about non-functional senators today, so I might as well add my own.

When I was a baby newspaper reporter, I went to cover a hearing presided over by the venerable Stephen M. Young (D-OH). Young was first elected to the Senate in 1958 at the age of 70. When I saw him he was in the middle of his second term; I reckon he was about 76. Young began the hearing by barking:

--Where's the chairman? The chairman isn't here. Madame clerk, I want the record to show the chairman isn't here to begin the hearing.

--Uh, Senator, you are the chairman.

Young served another four years after that.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

David Copperfield's Shadow

Finishing up with Dickens’ David Copperfield, it would be nice if I had time to go back and reread Great Expectations, thus bracketing Dickens’ two great account of maturation to manhood. I read Great Expectations once in college (uh, I think) and then again aloud with Mrs. B a few years back—that latter experience, at least, profitable and satisfying. I had always stayed away from Copperfield because I had heard it was too, well, too “Victorian,” at least as I understood the term.

I’m not at all sorry to have read Copperfield now. It has inarguable strength: unfailing narrative dynamism, and a range of secondary characters second to none—the quality, I guess, that makes people compare Dickens to Shakespeare. It has its failings although they are perhaps not quite what I expected: as I’ve said earlier, it is sentimental in its way, yet Dickens has a remarkable knack for spotting and criticizing his own sentimentalism at least as fast as any reader.

Yet it is a very different book from Great Expectations, not least in the respect that Copperfield’s David is a very different hero from GE’s Pip. David is, at the end of the day, perhaps the least interesting character in his own story: Angus Wilson says the book “has at times a prematurely mellow, over-cosy, self-satisfied note.” One might apply each of these adjectives to David himself (I quote from the Afterword to the Signet Classics Paperback edition of GE). The narrator David describes of himself as a writer, but (Wilson again) “for all the talk of his success as a novelist [he] seems much more like a bourgeois rentier.”

Pip is a darker, more doubtful sort of book with a hero more skeptical and in many ways more somber. It is not that Pip is free of vices (he is far too interesting for any such libel as that). But his vice are more subtle and complex, and Pip the hero himself, more self-aware. The adult Pip is heavy with—burdened with, perhaps—a kind of hypocrisy and pretension. But one reason for the complexity is that he finds himself a stranger in precisely the self-satisfied world where David finds himself so much at home.

One of the many wonderful things about Shakespeare is his wonderful capacity for self-correction. You can picture him in the audience at Richard II saying: Uh huh, can’t let the clowns speak verse again. Or you can literally see him try out the soliloquy form in Julius Caesar, and then to get it right later the same year in Hamlet. In a splendid little essay (called, plainly enough, Introduction to Dickens), Peter Ackroyd shows the same time of trajectory emerging in Dickens. He wrote different novels at different times in his life because he saw things differently—and what he saw was his own prior handiwork. It’s as if Dickens didn’t understand David’s own shortcomings until he had put them on full display. You can see the same sort of evolution (perhaps even more profound) between Bleak House—where “society” is the problem—to Little Dorritt—where it becomes clear that we are society, and we make out own fate.

Every text is a context. David Lodge writes somewhere about a character who is studying “the influence of Henry James on Shakespeare” (hat tip to Borges and Pierre Menard). I don’t suppose I have the time to go back and read GE at this point, but it’s good to have read it, and to see how the later Dickens casts a shadow over (and enriches) the early.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Gravely See

I took a night train along the edge of the Gobi Desert last year. The bunks were hard and I spent a good deal of the night standing between cars looking out at the vast wasteland under the stars. Apparently "Gobi" means “gravel,” or in any event, it certainly should. Boulders, in all direction boulders. Not the kind of place you want to wake up after a bad drunk.

The Voyage and Travel of Sir John Mandeville, Knight, is perhaps the granddaddy of all modern travel literature. He is commonly understood as a pack of lies—the source, inter alia, of the stories that Othello used to woo Desdemona:

And of the Cannibals that each other eat,

The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads

Do grow beneath their shoulders.

--Shakespeare, Othello, I, 3

On the other hand...
….In this contree, is the See that men clepen the Gravely See, that is alle Gravelle and Sond, with outen any drope of Watre: And it ebbeth and flowethe in grete Wawes, as other Sees don: and it is never stille ne in pes, in no mater cesoun. And no man may passé that See be Navye, ne be no maner of craft: and therefore may ne man knowe, what Lond is beyond that See. . . .

And a 3 iourneys long fro that See, ben gret Mountaynes; out of the whiche gothe out a gret Flood, that comethe out of Paradys: and it is fulle of precious Stones, with outen ony drope of Water: and it rennethe throghe the Desert, on that o side; so that it makethe the See gravely: and it berethe into that See, and there it endethe. . . . And anon as thei ben entred in to the gravely See, thei ben seyn no more; but lost for evere more.
--Chapter XXVII Of the Ryall Estate of Prestre John
Voiage and Travaile of Sir John Mandeville, Kt.

The Thoma Seminar

I guess I’ve said before that Mark Thoma’s Economist’s Voice is a great one-stop shopping outlet for new stuff on the economy—more comprehensive and less partisan than the usual suspects like DeLong, Mankiw, Marginal Revolution, etc. (link). He has a half dozen good new posts up there today, but I particularly enjoyed his reprint of “Five Macroeconomics Myths,” by Nobelist Ed Prescott (link). What’s so special about cut-and-paste copying from the Wall Street Journal, you ask? Well may you ask: the point is that a post at Thoma is capable of generating the kind of seminar that you wouldn’t mind sitting in on at any good graduate school—some idiotic comments, of course, but a lot of stuff that moves the ball down field—plus a no-extra-charge link to Mankiw saying he doesn’t understand what Prescott is talking about. The only problem here is that there’s too much—Prescott has set up an agenda that would make a semester of seminars all by itself. Here’s an exchange on a topic dear to my heart:

"RBC proponents ... recommend that the government get out of the way as much as possible and allow the private sector to take care of any problems that might arise."

Now that's a myth if ever I saw one!

"They argue for minimal government involvement in the economy and for policies that allow the private sector to respond optimally to changing economic conditions."

The term "minimal government involvement" doesn't have a defined sense unless in a purely ideological meaning. Free-marketeers aren't against government intervention, they are simply against certain forms of government intervention. There is no objective criteria to say that some interventions are more "minimal" than others. It's all foggy language used to cover up an ideological agenda. If they were really against state intervention, they should advocate abolishing property laws. They should advocate a society in which stealing is a legitimate economic activity, just as running a business or trading stock. (It is, in a sense).

Here's a good backgrounder on Prescott:link.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Dickens on Young Love

I had steered clear of Dickens’ David Copperfield until just now because I had heard he was sickly sentimental, especially as he idealized women.

Surprise: it’s true, alright, that he is sentimental and that he idealizes women. But he knows it, or at least his characters do. Case in point: David and Dora, the love of his life whom he, at least, idolizes. The alert reader may come to suspect that she isn’t quite the model of perfection that he supposes. But the reader may not be reader for the exchange that occurs when David breaks the news of his new love to his aunt and benefactor, Betsy Trotwood (Aunt Betsy addresses David as “Trot”):

“Oh, Trot, Trot! And so you fancy yourself in love! Do you?”

“Fancy, Aunt!” I exclaimed, as red as I could be. “I adore her with my whole soul!”

“Dora, indeed!” returned my aunt. “And you mean to say the little thing is very fascinating, I suppose?”

“My dear aunt,” I replied, “no one can form the least idea what she is!”

“Ah! And not silly?” said my aunt.

“Silly, Aunt!”

I seriously believe it had never once entered my head, for a single moment, to consider whether she was or not. I resented the idea, of course, but I was in a manner struck by it, as a new one altogether.

“Not light-headed?” said my aunt.

“Light-headed, Aunt!” I could only repeat this daring speculation with the same kind of feeling with which I repeated the preceding question.

“Well, well!” said my aunt. “I only ask. I don’t depreciate her. Poor little couple! And so you think you were formed for one another, and are to go through a party-supper-table kind of life, like two pretty pieces of confectionary, do you, Trot?”

She asked me this so kindly, and with such a gentle air, half-playful and half-sorrowful, that I was quite touched.

“We are young and inexperienced, Aunt, I know,” I replied, “and I dare say we say and think a good deal that is rather foolish. But we love one another truly, I am sure. If I thought Dora could ever love anybody else, or cease to love me, or that I could ever love anybody else, or cease to love her, I don’t know what I should do—go out of my mind, I think!”

“Ah, Trot!” said my aunt, shaking her head, and smiling gravely, “blind, blind, blind!”

Whether her tone of pity was for me, or for herself, or for anybody else, I could not decide…

--Charles Dickens, David Copperfield 504 (Signet Classic ed. 1962)

Two More Points on Horne, and a Third

Still in immured in Alistair Horne’s A Savage War of Peace, about the French/Algerian war¸ I offer two not very closely related bits of speculation:

  • Tis said that this is the must-read book among thinking military in Iraq. Why, I wonder? When I first heard about it, I assumed that they wanted to learn about a difficult, dangerous, corrupt war, in the end unsuccessful. If so, bully for them. Conceding that there are great differences between Iraq and Algeria, still there is a great deal to learn from this wise and insightful book—about the mechanics of war, but more generally about war, politics, legitimacy and a great deal more.

But the book is too rich for such easy summary. It is also, among many other thngs, a book about a revolution—the utter disintegration and agonizing rebirth of France. Of perhaps even greater urgency, it is a book about a putsch – an attempt by the military to seize the government of a great nation, remarkable not so much because it failed but because it came so close to success.

We’re such sheltered children: we seem to have no idea of the real menace of a powerful military in a democratic society. Granted we have endured a strong military for most of a century now, and we are overwhelmingly the better for it. That’s partly the result of intention and design, but we cannot underrate the importance of dumb luck. We had better thank our lucky stars that they never put themselves in such a configuration as to make this stuff possible.

Reading Horne on the putsch, the really disturbing point is that the French officer corps was not a gang of thugs. Of course there were thugs enough and to spare—aren’t there always?—but on the whole, this was as skilled, experienced and professional a military organization as you could hope for. And yet they got to the point where they saw themselves as th only effective force for order and good government in a badly mismanaged nation.

We’re not there yet. But make no mistake about it, children, when a nasty war tears you to bits and you begin to look to the military as the source of sanity, you’ve put yourself on a perilous road, indeed. I wonder what Horne’s readers in Iraq think on this issue.

  • And now, a word about torture. Much has been made of the crude cost-benefit example: the bomb is about to go off and your man knows where it is buried, you can save a hundred lives. Fine, I have nothing more to add to that. But if (big if) you want to wander on down the cost-benefit road, Horne suggests two other avenues you had better explore. One, for every terrorist you torture, how many do you create? One? One hundred? I have no idea, and uncertainty itself may be enough to discredit cost-benefit analysis altogether. But anybody who thinks they can do the calculus without adding up this column is simply playing with numbers.

And even if we get past this last set of questions—how to measure the damage to the soldiers who are called upon the inflict the torture? Some torturers are, I suppose, born monsters (whatever that means). Horne makes it clear that many are not: many are ordinary folks who are called upon to do a particular job—and find that their own sense of themselves is forever damaged and demeaned. Anybody want to show me the price ticket for that?

Footnote: I have recounted that Horne’s book is said to be a hit with the American military in Iraq. Last spring it was out of print; as I recall, copies were on offer at Amazon priced in excess of $100 (Horne’s book has since been brought back into print by New York Review of Books; link). Anyway, the other great book to come out of the Algerian War is David Galula’s Counterinsurgency Warfare (1964) (link), also out of print. There are 10 Amazon reviews, all five-star. There is one used copy on offer; the price is $162.85.

Footnote to footnote: The Rand Corporation has recently released a formerly classified report, Pacification in Algeria, 1956-58, (link) which formed the basis for Galula’s book. Interesting to note that the “successful” counterinsurgency ended in 1958, but the war persisted until 1962.

Friday, December 08, 2006


Off to visit grandkids, perhaps little or nothing until Mon night.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

The NYRB "Classics"

Patrick Kurp weighs in with his likes and dislikes from the New York Review of Books Classics (or “Classics”) (link). I think I was “a reader” who suggested he comment on this topic and inevitably, I share some of his tastes, not others. We agree on The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, by Nirad C. Chaudhuri; The Stories of J.F. Powers; My Century, by Aleksander Wat; and The Thirty Years War, by C.V. Wedgwood. I can’t say I share some of his other enthusiasms. On the other hand, I think he is right that Richard Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy is just not the sort of book you want to read in a clumsy paperback—I have a fine old 1941 hardcover co-edited by Floyd Dell (I assume I have the right Floyd Dell), which can rest comfortably under the bed for months at a time, and still be ready for service on demand.

I agree with him about the intro to Burton’s Anatomy—not so hot— but I’d generalize: quite a few of the intros are perfunctory or downright bad. I am particularly amused by Colin Tóibín’s intro to The New York Stories of Henry James—Tóibín left me with the strong suspicion he didn’t think the book should have been published at all.

Some of my own favorites are books I knew before but am glad to see back in print—Murray Kempton’s Part of Our Time: Some Ruins and Monuments of the 30s is a good example. I’m glad to see some showcasing of Leonardo Sciascia and George Simenon, though in both cases, NYRB perhaps overdid it (Sciascia’s The Moro Affair is nothing but a piece of journalism, and not a very good one at that) (so also J. R. Ackerley?).

Others were brand new to me here: I had never heard of Andrei Platonov; his The Fierce and Beautiful World is one of the best things in the collection. So also David Jones’ In Parenthesis. I’m sure I should have recognized Mavis Gallant’s Paris Stories, but I didn’t, and I’m glad I do now.

Patrick wonders how these books get chosen. I have a suggestion: cronyism and chance.

There’s really no other explanation for the high incidence of ex-wives of Robert Lowell (link). And I certainly can’t think of any other reason to explain the skilled but deeply unpleasant Contempt by Alberto Moravia, or Curzio Malaparte’s Kaputt, but on that last, I wouldn’t know because neither I nor anyone else has ever finished reading it.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Smithers, We Hardly Knew Ye ...

There are not a lot of yuks in Alistair Horne’s A Savage War of Peace, about the French-Algerian conflict (link). But I did find a bit of dark comedy in one episode from the career of Marcel Bigeard, commander of the 3rd Regiment of Colonial Parachutists. Bigeard was apparently a first-class soldier who turned his troops into “a crack force; one of the most effective in the Western world.” He was also not above a bit of showmanship. Horne elaborates:

Tall and powerful with a beaked nose that imparted a look of a bird of prey, Bigeard had that particularly French quality of allure essential to an outstanding commander. He seldom did anything without panache. Instead of arriving by staff car or even helicopter, his favourite manner of inspecting a unit was to drop by parachute, arm at the salute as he touched down. (168)

And then this footnote:

This nearly ended in disaster when Bigeard, by now nearing sixty and a senior general, was dropped into a shark-infested sea by mistake during a visit to troops in Madagascar. He broke an arm but was saved by his faithful staff who had parachuted into the sea with him.

Bigeard, who later rose to be a four-star general and State Secretary and the Ministry of Defence, evidently served as a model for “Colonel Raspeguy,” in Jean Larteguy’s The Centurions, a novel by Jean Larteguy about the Algerian episode, later made into a movie, The Lost Command, with Anthony Quinn (link). It's something to think about: how would you like to be able to say your grandchildren--"why, did I ever tell you about the time I dropped the general into the ocean?" Yes, grandpa, many times.


From: BreakingNews@MAIL.CNN.COM [mailto:BreakingNews@MAIL.CNN.COM]
Sent: Wednesday, December 06, 2006 10:08 AM
Subject: CNN Breaking News

-- President Bush's policy in Iraq "is not working," the Iraq Study Group said in releasing its long-awaited report.


[Thanks, John]


My friend Peter thinks I've been hacked. He says that this link seems to have been hijacked for a time yesterday by a link that has nothing to do with me. He sent me a copy of the link, although I won't republish it here: I have no inclination at all to give these hackers, if it is a hack, any extra publicity.

I have no idea what's going on here: whether it was an accident or intentional or whether, God forbid, Peter somehow pressed the wrong key. But the problem seems to have gone away, and I trust it will stay away. If you do run across any further seeming hacks, I hope you'll tell me, in comments or otherwise.

Meanwhile, this site remains all Underbelly, all the time.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Alistair Horne on Two Savage Wars

I’m deep into Alistair Horne’s A Savage War of Peace (1977; NYRB reprint 2006) (link), about the French-Algerian war of the 50s-60s. It’s worth the effort but it’s not easy going: the story is well told, but it’s grim and Horne does nothing to smooth its rough edges—let’s just say they won’t likely be turning it into a musical real soon. For its part, the New York Review of Books must feel they won the lottery on this one. Did they know when they signed on for the reprint that the original would be the must-read book among junior officers in the Middle East, with yellowed originals reputedly commanding upwards of $200?

The differences between French Algeria and the 21st-Century are Iraq are obvious and should not be elided. America is not a traditional occupying power in Iraq like the French were in Algeria. There is no class of permanent resident Europeans, like the pied noir in Algeria. And so forth. For the similarities, it is perhaps convenient to let Horne speak for himself: his new 2006 preface is posted at the NYRB website (link). Here’s the money shot:

The lessons surely apply today. At the time of writing, one feels that Bush’s Washington (and Blair’s London) also went blindly into Iraq —and into collision with the Islamic world—without the kind of necessary preparation, where study of Algeria in 1954-62 might have helped. At the very least its lessons might have imposed caution before getting involved in Iraq in the first place.

There are at least three areas where the echoes are particularly painful, if not deafening.

ONE: In the early days of the Algerian War, once the FLN realised it was not strong enough to take on the powerful French Army, it concentrated its attacks on the native police loyal to France. Result: a deadly loss of morale among the police, with defections to the FLN, and the French Army defensively reduced to protecting the police, instead of concentrating on active “search-and-destroy” missions. The “insurgents” in Iraq have learned from this strategy with deadly effect.

TWO: The benefit of porous frontiers. In 1954-62, the winning French Army was paralysed by its inability to pursue its FLN enemy across into its friendly bases in neighbouring Tunisia and Morocco. This is what, in effect, led to the collapse of the French government and the advent of de Gaulle in 1958. In their turn, the Iraq insurgents have been able to use Syria—and now, much more dangerously, Iran—to similar advantage.

THREE: The vile hand of torture; of abuse, and counter-abuse. In the Algerian War what led—probably more than any other single factor—to the ultimate defeat of France was the realisation, in France and the world at large, that methods of interrogation were being used that had been condemned under the Nazi Occupation. …

Thomas E. Ricks reviews the book here. Another good review is here. Horne himself weighs in on Israel here.

OTOH, if Andrew Sullivan is right, maybe you should skip Algeria and cut straight to (another NYRB favorite) the Thirty Years War.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Thinking of Jesus

I've said before that Hill Street Blues was the best cop show ever. One of the best things about it was Trinidad Silva. You’ve forgotten? He played Jesus Martinez, the menacing and magnetic leader of the Hill Street’s Hispanic street gang. He wore an absurd overcoat; he called Captain Furillo “Frankie,” as in “Yo, Frankie.” My memory is he sucked a toothpick.

I thought of Jesus lately when thinking about Iraq and kindred uproars: all our talk about how the state is failing and we are reverting to “the tribes.”

Well, yes. Civilization is a precious achievement, hard won and fragile enough to vanish in a moment. Æschylus understood this, when he showed Athene as she drove away the furies:

Go then. Sped by majestic sacrifice

From these, plunge beneath the ground.There hold

Off what might hurt the land; pour in

The city’s advantage, success in the end.

--Æschylus, The Eumenides, 1006-9 (Richmond Lattimore trans. 1953)

But Æschylus understood: the furies are the city. Families, networks, alliances: sure, we have to tame them, but they are what give the city its lifeblood and its sinew. One of the many virtues of HSB is that it was about the first TV show ever to deal frankly with that issue. Jesus was scary and funny, but Frankie needed him. And Jesus, in his own way, needed Frankie: in the end, he was a man of political vision who cared for his community at least as much—well, perhaps almost as much—as he cared for himself. Moreover, he was a man of his word. You could deal with that guy. I don’t know of anything quite like this before, but if we are thinking of “street government,” don’t we see just a hint of Tony Soprano around here somewhere?

I got curious about Jesus the other night. Through the magic of Google, it was easy to track him down. His offstage name was Trinidad Silva. He was born in 1950, which means he was in his early 30s when he tangled with Frankie. Outside of HSB, he had a bit of a career. He played the Punk #2 in the Blue Chevie in Steve Martin’s The Jerk.

He played guys with names like Carlos and Hector and Ramon. He played an older and perhaps more complicated gangster-- Leo “Frog” Lopez-- in Dennis Hopper’s Colors; Janet Maslin said Hopper had “a superb eye for the poisonous flowering of gang culture” (link).

Imagine my dismay, then, to learn that Silva died at just about the time Colors opened—--killed in an automobile collision with a drunk driver at Whittier, CA. He had not yet finished his work on Al Yankovic’s UHF—they had to rewrite the script, and they gave him a special credit.

I’ve never seen Colors or UHF, but I know that he left at least one fine piece of work behind him, and I am grateful for it.

Oh, and a propos of nothing, he’s here, too. I like the one about “caterers.”