Thursday, July 31, 2008

Appreciation: Il Gattopardo

Mr. and Mrs. B settled in for a two-evening viewing this week of Visconti's Il Gattopardo, The Leopard, his film rendition of Giusepppe Tomasi di Lampadusa's renowned novel. We'd each seen it separately; oddly, we had only dim memories of a film so much discussed, so often with admiration. The verdict on this viewing: a worthwhile exercise, time well spent, although a "great" movie it certainly is not. Let's see if I can make just a couple of points not already well made elsewhere.

One: much is made of the casting of Burt Lancaster as the old prince. The short answer has to be: he looks the part even if he sounds ridiculous. The overlooked point is that the old prince was a figure of legend and enchantment to the author himself long before he became a literary archetype. Lampedusa was born in 1896; the events of the story take place during the Risorgimento, around 1860. Take a look at the picture of the old prince in David Gilmour's splendid biography of Lampedusa, and you can see in as flash that the whole business is a fairy tale: the old man in the picture is plump and ridiculous, not remotely the kind of character that deserves to be played by anybody with washboard abs. But that's fine: treat it as legend and it works. Might be fun to watch the dubbed Italian version to see if it offers anything different.

Two: there is a kind of epic style of moviemaking that seems inescapable for this kind of family saga. Seen in this light, Il Gattopardo reminds me of nothing so much as Sunshine, István Szabó's film saga of a Hungarian Jewish family caught up in the cruel politics of the 20th Century. Both of them sketch their pictures with Crayola strokes; you've just got to accept the convention and stipulate to enjoy.

I repeat that I liked Il Gattopardo. Yet I yield to the temptation to repeat a remarkable piece of film criticism--David Thompson's savaging of Visconti's directorial career. "It certainly is true," says Thompson,
that on the international art house circuit Visconti's flamboyant treatment of a few prestigious ventures passed for respectability. If there was a Nobel prize for cinema, Visconti would have had it long ago; he was as deserving as Steinbeck, and he was very social.
Thompson does concede that it is a "splendid art-house package[], with dazzling production values, meticulous if unsurprising acting and well-signposted significance." Fair comment, I'd say, but "worthy of Nobel prize"--oooh, that hurts.

Fn.: Wiki makes an interesting point on the translation of "gattopardo" (link).

Appreciation: Hildinger on Steppe Warriors

You wouldn't want to call Erik Hildinger's Warriors of the Steppe exactly "scholarship." There are nol footnotes. The bibliography is extensive, but not exhaustive. And the tone is too easy and direct. But he's got a remarkable story to tell, which he presents with crisp conviction.

Executive summary: for something like 2200 years--until the implementation of gunpowder--nomads from Central Asia repeatedly made a nuisance of themselves with their more "civilized" neighbors and more than once, bid fair to put these neighbors permanently out of business. They succeeded in doing so for two reasons: one, they deployed a set of lethal tactics that their neighbors--unaccountably by any measure--persistently refused to learn. And two, they forced these neighbors to accept their (nomadic) definition of war.

Genghis Khan was their prime avatar--with his descendants, perhaps the most successful and effective military presence in history, certainly in the last thousand years (yes, counting Napoleon and Hitler). But there were many others: Scythians, Parthians Huns, Magyars, Bulgars, Avars, Seljuks, Crimean Tatars, even the Jurchids who imposed on the Chinese their last foreign dynasty.
There were failures: not every oppporunistic nomad became Genghis Khan. Sometimes, the invaders failed because the defenders used their own tactics against them (think Mamluks); sometimes because they fell into anarchy and lost their fighting edge (think Dmitri Donskoi). But it is impossible to name any other culture that so persistently and so consistently inflicted pain on its neighbors.

The complex of tactics is as simple as it was devastating. Ride light, durable, fast-moving horses. Take the opponents by surprise. Surround them and devastate them with a hail of arrows. Retreat--or appear to retreat, but wait until your pursuers have broken ranks and then turn and open fire. The surprise is not that it worked once, but that it worked time after time after time. And there was no mystery: the first account is in Herodotus, about 450 BC. One cannot escape the notion that arrogance and indifference and cultural blindness had at least as much to do with the nomads' success as any peculiar virtue in technique.

The matter of "choosing their own war" is perhaps more complicated, but at least as interesting. The key point is that the step nomads, at least traditionally, weren't interested in conquering cities. They were interested mainly in pillage, and cities were merely an incidental detail. So they had no interest in the war of position and domination so central to the strategic thinking of the West. Even Genghis Khan, who used siege engines (he learned about them from the Chinese), and who build a semi-durable network of polities---even Genghis Khan, so they say, was actually in a city only once in his life.

One invigorating lesson from Hildinger's narrative is that all war is stylized, conventional: even "total" war hasw its norms and its conventions, and a fabric of values from which the protagonists cannot easily escape. It's a lesson profitably to be learned by anybody who hazards combat with an enemy whose reading from a wholly different page.

The Magical Moment

There's a guy who sits in the back of the Palookaville cafe most mornings pecking away on a big ol' Dell Inspiron laptop. I've heard him tell people he is working on a novel, and I have no doubt he believes this to be true. This morning I heard him chatting with an acquaintance:
Yes, she tells me I get to do one fun thing every day, and this is my fun thing.

Later, I go to CostCo...
Observation: CostCo is, indeed a critical waystation in the insidious demasculinization of the planet, not so? I mean, first you get them to buy vodka and tri-tip. Next, you've got them hauling out cases of Pellegrino. And first thing you know, they're buying panty hose with a coupon.

Book Fair: Johnson on Johnson

Kevin Johnson, dean at the UC Davis Law School, has a non-neurotic approach to making a nomination for the Underbelly summer Book Fair--Kevin nominates his own book, Opening the Floodgates: Why America Needs to Rethink its Borders and Immigration Laws (NYU Press 2004). Here's a bit of the publisher's blurb.

Seeking to re-imagine the meaning and significance of the international border, Opening the Floodgates makes a case for eliminating the border as a legal construct that impedes the movement of people into this country. Open migration policies deserve fuller analysis, particularly on the eve of a presidential election. Kevin R. Johnson offers an alternative vision of how U.S. borders might be reconfigured, grounded in moral, economic, and policy arguments for open borders. Importantly, liberalizing migration through an open borders policy would recognize that the enforcement of closed borders cannot stifle the strong, perhaps irresistible, economic, social, and political pressures that fuel international migration. Controversially, Johnson suggests that open borders are entirely consistent with efforts to prevent terrorism that have dominated immigration enforcement since the events of September 11, 2001. More liberal migration, he suggests, would allow for full attention to be paid to the true dangers to public safety and national security.

Afterthought: Kevin also co-hosts (with Bill Hing, whose recommendation appeared here earlier) at the influential ImmigrationProf Blog. Again, recall that for your convenience, we will be collecting all the Book Fair posts here.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Shakespeare Sighting

Terry Teachout discovers The Rough Guide to Shakespeare (link) --which he might have discovered here or here. Note that I get my two cents' worth in among Terry's comments.

Easy for You to Say...

Found trawling through the StatCounter links: somebody has translated this page of Underbelly into Japanese. Underbelly groupies will of course recognize it as one of my many learned and insightful commentaries on pension issues.

I Don't Get it with Car Leasing

The auto companies are saying they are going to get out of leasing. I don't get it. Actually, I never did understand leasing, but I get it even less now.

Start with some basics. At least up until today, auto leasing served one or both of two functions:
  • To obscure the true cost of the car to the buyer.
  • To allow the manufacturer/dealer to capture the resale value.
[Yes, yes, I know that people always go on and on about "tax advantages," but it seems to me these "tax advantages," if any, are going to be arbitraged into the price--this is part of the obscurantism.]

And so now they are stopping leasing because there isn't enough money in it. Say, wha--? Don't these guys have MBAs? Didn't somebody teach them that anything is a bargain at the right price? So, if they aren't making enough money at the current price, then raise the price, right? Sure, I suppose sales will fall, and they may make less money. But less trumps none. The explanation doesn't wash.

Tedious expansion: Unpacked, I suppose that what they are saying is that the resale price of an SUV is not likely to be as great in the future as it was in the recent passt. Fine, so be it. So if they have to cover the cost of the vehicle, they will need to charge more for the lease term. You gueys want to borrow my calculator?

Here's a numerical example. Dealer has a new Belchfire on offer at $50,000. Pick an interest rate: 5 percent . If the buyer pays the whole price in 36 installments, he is looking at a payment of $1,459 a month.

Compare a "lease." Suppose the dealer chooses to "lease," predicting that the vehicle will be worth $40,000 when he gets it back after three years. This means he has to amortize $10,000 (50-40) of the value over the three year term. At five percent, this implies a monthly lease payment of $300 a month. We can stipulate that $300<$1,459, but after three years, the dealer gets his property back and the lessee is looking for a new set of wheels. But suppose that the resale price falls while the total price remains the same, so the dealer has to amortize, say, $20,000 at the front end. The payment jumps to $599 but otherwise, the same rules apply. BTW, this example assumes that the resale value falls while the new price remains the same. I don't know why we should expect this. Seems to me we would expect the market price for the new vehicle and the resale to fall at pretty much the same rate. Fn.: See expansion in the comment infra.

"Follow Me, Men!"

I never thought of this before, but I'll bet it's right:
Military historian Hans Delbrueck has rightly pointed out that the human voice does not carry very far, especially over the noise of battle, and that tales of leaders inspiring and rallying their men by voice ... simply cannot be true, despite their universal currency.
That's from Erik Hildinger, Warrors of the Steppe (1997, at 164), of which I hope to say more later as soon as I finish it. "Delbrueck" appears to be Hans Delbrueck, Medieval Warfare, 3 vols. (trans. W.J. Renfroe Jr., 1990), unread by me.


Lovely morning here in Palookaville; temperature balmy, the forest fires have receded, and the earthquake is far away.

There is a street person up at the corner who is trying to make the most of his good fortune. He's shirtless in the yoga posture, with all his personal gear neatly arrayed at his side.

He seems to be embroidering.

And listening to Limbaugh.

Afterthought: Hey, I bet this is the same guy I saw last year with his cat on a leash.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Milosz the Anthologizer

It's tempting to say that we get a poetry anthology from Czeslaw Milosz because he is, well, Czeslaw Milosz, and as the voice of Western Civilization, he gets to publish anything he wants.

That was my ungracious first impulse when I first happened upon A Book of Luminous Things: An International Anthology of Poetry just lately (the copyright is 1996; Milosz died in 2004).

A more considered judgment would infer that maybe he gets to publish it because he is a very good anthologizer and because exhibits his remarkable personality in all its luminosity. Anthologizing itself can be, after all, a creative act: what to choose and what to leave out? But more than just choosing, Milosz has fleshed out his collection with commentary, to the end of explaining what he is about.

His program is ambitious. "I have always felt," he declares in an introduction,
that a poet participates in the management of the estate of poetry ... . Thinking about that estate, such as it is at the present moment, I decided I could contribute to its possessions provided, however, that instead of theory, I brought to it something of practice. . . . My intention is not so much to defend poetry in general, but, rather, to remind readers that for some very good reasons it may be of importance today. (xv-xvi)
And so we are off on an quest that brings back no Byron, no Shelley, no Keats, no Shakespeare nor (for what it is worth) any T. S. Eliot or Hart Crane--not even any Berthold Brecht. It is, then, a highly personal collection. There is a sort of a "theme" in that virtually all the poems are short, pithy and to the point. It is heavy on Asian--maybe there is an Asian tendency to be pithy and to the point. There's a bit of Polish and other Eastern European but not, perhaps, quite as much as you might expect. It's all organized thematically ("Epiphany," "Travels," "Woman's Skin," that sort of thing). There are 11 such; the last one is called "History," but Milosz explains:
This chapter is in reality an anti-chapter. For poets of the wentieth century, history has been all-pervading, and much as they owuld like to turn to the eternal subjects of love and death, they ahve been forced to be aware of wars, reovlutions, and the changes of political systems. (293)
Milosz says that he is "reticent" even so much as to offer such a chapter in troubled times. But he declares:
... I rejoice in being able to make an anthology such as this one, and it may be source of optimism that in this cruel century such an anthology can be made. (Id.)
Here's one of the translations, this from the Chinese:
On branch tips the hibuscus bloom
The mountains show off red calices.
Nobody. A silent cottage in the valley.
One by one flowers open, then fall.
--Wang Wei, "Magnolia Basin,"
Czeslaw Milosz, A Book of Luminous Things 136 (1996)
Translation by Tony and Willis Barnstone and Xu Haixin

Richter 0.0

Forest fires we got, but I've been in California nearly 40 years now and never felt an earthquake.

That's because I spend most of my time inland--the great Central Valley, an old dired-up lake bed. Earthquakes are not impossible here, but they are pretty tame. I was in my car at the time of the Loma Prieta shake in 1989. My stationery friends felt it, but I, never a ripple.

If ever I am in an earthquake, I hope I am in an elevator with a complete stranger so I can say:

"Did the Earth Move for You, Too?"

Revenge of the Nerds with Briefcases

It's true: we're surrounded by IP lawyers.

First, we learned that the government may owe royalties on torture music.
As they say, ignore the Constitution if you like but don't mess with ASCAP.

Next, my colleague Anupam points me to the travails of John McCain's mashup.

And finally, my friend Toni reports on the word game that they play on Facebook. It's "Scrabulous," but when she logged on this morning, she learned:
Scrabulous is disabled for US and Canadian users until further notice. If you would like to stay informed about developments in this matter, please click here.
When word games are outlawed ...

Update: The saga continues (link).

Monday, July 28, 2008

Three Things Things I Know About Immigration, I Think

I guess you could say I'm pretty much of a wet on issues of immigration. I believe that, on the whole, immigration probably does more good to the economy than harm. I do think we should try to do more in the way of "civic education," acculturation--this is, after all, a great country (why else would they want to come?) and it is important to try to keep it functioning. Anyway, we might as well: I suspect that the debate is on the whole pretty pointless because, aside from Lou Dobbs and Tom Tancredo, I suspect there really aren't many people willing to do what it would take to maintain any meaningful controls.

Still, here are three complicating wrinkles that I believe to be true:
  • I think you'd have to acknowledge that the H-1B Visa program, that brings "non-immigrants" (hah!) in for "necessary" jobs--that it's a form of indentured servitude. On the other hand, I'm one who has a soft spot for indentured servitude. I suspect that over the centuries, it has helped some people (probably including some of my ancestors) to get a chance they wouldn't have had otherwise.
  • I suspect that the great zeal for foreign graduate students is motivated by the need for cheap labor to staff research labs. Whether one could add "at the expense of the taxpayer" is, perhaps, a more difficult question.
  • I recognize the evidence is equivocal, but I suspect it is true that (a) immigrants have a lower crime rate than the general population, but that for the children of immigrants, the crime rate is higher.

Book Fair: Wydick on McPhee

Here's my quondam colleague Richard Wydick from the UC Davis law school, weighing in at the Underbelly summer Book Fair:
I recommend The Control of Nature, by John McPhee (Farrar, Straus & Giroux 1989). McPhee offers three stories about man's efforts to control nature. All three are about flows. The first is the Army Corps of Engineer's effort to control the flow of the lower Mississippi, to prevent it from shifting West and cutting off New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and all the industrial plants in between. The second story is about Icelanders trying to control the flow of red hot lava that threatened to close off an important fishing harbor. The third is about Los Angeles and debris flows that come down canyons from the San Gabriel mountains after fire has destroyed the vegetation and heavy rains have washed dirt, boulders, Chevy trucks, and houses down the slopes.
Afterthought:Actually, McPhee has an important UC Davis connection. McPhee's Assembling California is "a classic account of the geologic evolution of the Golden State"--an account which McPhee developed under the guidance of UCD geologist Eldridge Moores (cf. link).

For your convenience, we will be collecting all the Book Fair p
osts here.

Sunday, July 27, 2008


When your wife says "are you going like that?" it's a good idea to change.

End of Western Civilization as we Know It

The Kansas bureau reports that reruns of Jerry Springer are now available on Pay Per View.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

IP Piracy in China: Calendars

It’s no secret that the Chinese nomenklatura likes to keep secrets when it comes to maintaining control over the multitudes, with one of the most sophisticated schemes of IP management in the world (largely implemented from US-based suppliers). Or, not at all inconsistently, that they stand at or near the top of league tables in IP piracy (if this were an Olympic sport…).

What is news to me is that none of this is news. In Life Along the Silk Road, Susan Whitfield recounts an episode from the 10th century involving calendars. Yes, calendars:

At the start of every Chinese dynasty, the imperial astronomers were instructed to calculate a new calendar to show the emperor’s understanding of, and harmony with, the natural order. If, however, portents appeared, then it could be taken as a sign that the astronomers themselves had made a mistake and that their calculations did not accord with the situation prevailing in the cosmic sphere.

Accordingly, ,the activities of astronomers and the production of calendars were carefully monitored at the highest levels. Only imperially appointed astronomers were allowed to produce calendars, which were then distributed to the provinces. Nevertheless, unofficial calendars, called almanacs, continued to be produced, as a memorial of 835 noted: ‘In the princes of Sichuan and Huainan, printed almanacs area on sale in the markets. Every year, before the Imperial Observatory has submitted the new calendar for approval and had it officially promulgated, these printed almanacs flood the empire. This violates the principle that the calendar is a gift of His Imperial Majesty.’

... The Tang dynasty’s attempt to monopolize production of the official calendar stemmed from economic as much as political motives: the calendar was essential for all officials and popular among the rest of the population, and the production of pirate copies denied the state considerable income from sales. After 835 it was stipulated, in what is almost certainly the oldest publication ordinance in the world, that the private printing of calendars by local administrations and their private possession.

Evidently the Tang administration had no better luck than its successors in pursuing IP piracy:

[T]he law was flouted, as the almanac from the Chinese capital held in the monastery library of Dunhuang clearly shows. It was produced by a family firm of printers in the Eastern Market of Chang’an, right under the noses of the emperor and his high officials whose palaces and villas abutted the market.

—Susan Whitfield, Life Along the Silk Road 196-7 (1999).

Whitfield doesn’t disclose the penalty for trafficking in contraband calendars. Presumably it wasn’t pretty, but apparently not severe enough to defeat the traffic.

Update: Apparently Whitfield herself recognizes the parallel. Searching for more information on her investigations, I stumbled on this paper about the changing nature of scholarship in the digital age. The title is "Enjoy It While it Lasts: A Brief Golden Age of Freedom of Scholarly Information," which gives you the general age (it bears a publication date of October 2000).

The Internet has provided a genuine revolutionary leap in terms of access to information. It has confounded the censor and has enabled lone, unfashionable and eccentric voices to be heard. These are qualities which should be welcomed by the scholarly community. Yet this community is no different from others in tending towards a comfortable and exclusive conservativism, concerned, above all, to protect its members rights and to exclude those who threaten the community, either from within or without.

The history of academic censorship has not only seen restrictions imposed from outside. The community is, dismayingly, all too often complicit, with self-censorship not uncommon. . . .

It is probably not coincidental that just as the Internet was offering scholars a revolution in the free expression and dissemination of ideas a new mood of scholarly possessiveness - expressed through the concept of 'intellectual property rights'- also started to gain momentum (see W3C Intellectual Property Rights Overview). And this way danger lies. The past few years have already seen an increase in litigation by those claiming that others have stolen their ideas - whether these be songs, scientific theories or film treatments. This has been accompanied by an increasing drive to register exclusive ownership. And it is not only the ownership of ideas which has come under increasingly legal scrutiny in the last decade. Human genes, images of ordinary building and of major collections of artworks are all becoming subject to property laws. These developments are direct threats to the new scholarly freedoms offered by the Internet.

The jury is still out about which side will prevail. Will the Internet revolution continue to threaten those who wish, for whatever purpose, to control information? The scholarly community - for its own well-being if nothing else - ought to side with the revolutionaries, but its past history and inherent conservativism suggests that it may end up in a devil's alliance with business to ensure that ownership is restricted.

Obama's Hasselhoff Moment

So many bloggers are busy remembering how John F. Kennedy at the Berlin Wall said "I am a jelly doughnut" (link). Ich bin ein Berliner? Berliner= Jelly doughnut? Well, maybe you had to have been there.

In fact, Kennedy knew he was having trouble with the language. What he really said was "Ich bin ein Berlitzer."

And years later, Richard Nixon went to the Great Wall of China and said "I am a Pekinese."

Well, maybe you had to have been there.

Note: The headline is nothing more than a cheap-shot homage to the man who, by his own account, personally brought down the Berlin Wall. So far as I can tell, no candidate has made any such claim in this campaign. Yet.

David on the Economics of Lunch

My cousin David (who is old enough to remember) has his knickers in a twist remembering prices from the 1950 menu at the FW Woolworth Company (or maybe he has is just from sitting on one of those high stools). "Thanks a lot!" growls David. "Those were the days!"

Sure enough, but it would be important first to play the inflation game. Using the CPI calculator from the Bureau of Labor Statistics website (link), I find that the appropriate pricing factor is about niine—in the sense that it would take you $9 today to buy what $1 bought then (actually 9.08, but I’ll round off so I can do the math in my head). So, a ham (or egg, or cheese) sandwich is $2.70 (30 x 9); a slice of cake or pie is $1.35 (15 x 9) and so forth.

But there are problems here. First, what is the right point of comparison? I There are no Woolworth’s any more; maybe the right point of comparison would be Denny’s. One threshold difficulty with this comparison is that the Denny’s website lists ten different menus (link)—almost as if you could say that the range of choices has expanded even faster than the CPI. There is a “kiddies” an “all-night” and, perhaps most relevant for our purposes, the menu for “seniors” (defined as “55 and over”) so you can qualify as a “senior” even if your age in 1950 was negative three.

But if you look at the senior menu at the Denny website, you run head-on into another perplexity: the website listing doesn’t seem to track with the offerings at the 1950s Woolworth. No “ham sandwich;” instead, w e have a “Senior Bacon Cheddar Burger,” defined asa delicious, juicy hamburger with crisp bacon, Cheddar cheese, lettuce and tomato.” Or a “Senior Club Sandwich,” said to contain “thinly sliced turkey breast, crisp bacon, lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise on toasted white bread.”

Perhaps the closest comparison is the “Senior Grilled Cheese Deluxe Sandwich,” which turns out to be “melted American cheese with tomato on grilled sourdough bread.” I suppose if you were the patron saint of old geezers, you could get her to leave the tomato off, but it’s a question.

Prices are not listed for these items—apparently the folks in marketing have advised that web shoppers are not price-sensitive. We do, ,however, find a “Flatjack Sizzzlin’ Skillet,” on offer for $5.99, containing “a traditional breakfast delivered sizzlin’ hot on a casts iron skillet. On the side, sit some warm flatjacks. Thin, sweet pancakes ready to be rolled up with scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon and hash browns. Pour syrup on top, if you know what’s good. It’s up to you to customize every delicious bite.”

Flatjacks? Ah, let it pass. A more puzzling question is—whose “tradition”? Somebody at the bar at Woolworth’s in 1950 would surely have told you that if he asked his wife for the “traditional skillet breakfast,” she would have hurled it at him (idle thought: does Denny serve this Mount Rushmore of breakfast treats with a complimentary chest spreader, for emergency care until the paramedics arrive?).

Still I have to admit I am a bit baffled by all this: on the one hand, the basic “factor of nine” prices sound pretty cheap. On the other, it is not obvious that you can get anything that compares to the 1950 breakfast any more—and if you buy one of the monster specials, you actually get a kind of a bargain.

There is also the problem of quality, and that is almost too depressing to contemplate.. The1950s menu offers “plain bread,” which might not be a selling point today. I’d speculate that the 1950 chicken just might be superior today’s factory specials (and note—relatively speaking, on the 1950 menu, the chicken is the most expensive offering). For sheer ambiance, I don’t think either has much to offer. I don’t suppose anybody ever actually goes to Denny’s, any more than you would have gone to Woolworth’s—if you wind up at either place, then something has gone bad wrong with your day. On the other hand, I don’t suppose anybody ever will duplicate that inimitable Woolworth basement smell.

Perhaps the most interesting comparison, though, would be in terms of earning capacity. Forget about straight CPI numbers, on which I would concede that Woolworth does look fairly cheap. Instead ask: how much of the average weekly paycheck would an Woolworth lunch cost? My suspicion is that even at 1950 prices, lunch out was more of a big deal than it would be today. So even though Denny serves up a lunch fit for an angry rhino, the customer is likely to go home with less of a dent in his wallet than his grandfather at Woolworth’s so long ago.

Pooterish-Boho Dash: Barnes on Fitzgerald

I’d say that Penelope Fitzgerald gets the reviewer she deserves when Julian Barnes undertakes to examine her letters (link). I wanted to write “the novelist” Penelope Fitzgerald undergoes a review by “the novelist” Julian Barnes, but that’s just the point: in each case, the reviewer and the reviewed, the title “novelist” is a bit off kilter; both Barnes and Fitzgerald do things with the novel that stretch the definition of the form at least as far as did, say, The Satyricon or The Tale of Genji. Which is precisely why Firtzgerald deserves Barnes: it is the sheer originality of the one that makes him so fitly qualified to appreciate the sheer originality of the other.

Barnes is suitably reverent in the of the sheer unexpectedness of Fitzgerald: even in a nation of eccentric old ladies, just how was it that she went from being nobody in particular to one of the most original talents of her age. Barnes also exhibits, although he does not attempt to isolate, although he does not seek to over-explain, some prime examples of just what made Fitzgerald so much herself. He’s also subtly appreciative of just what a hard time she had, making her own way in the face of, inter alia, the smugly patronizing dismissals of her presumed betters. Barnes says:

[W]hen public recognition came, it followed no obvious trajectory, and was attended by a certain level of male diminishment. In 1977 her non-fiction publisher, Richard Garnett, informed her dunderheadedly that she was "only an amateur writer", to which she responded mildly, "I asked myself, how many books do you have to write and how many semi-colons do you have to discard before you lose amateur status?" The following year, after having been shortlisted for the Booker prize with The Bookshop, she asked her fiction publisher, Colin Haycraft, if it would be a good idea to write another novel. He jocundly replied that if she went on writing fiction he didn't want it blamed on him, and in any case he already had too many short novels with sad endings on his hands. (Unsurprisingly, Fitzgerald took herself off to another publisher, and Haycraft claimed he had been misunderstood.) … The BBC's resident bookheads also treated her condescendingly: radio's Frank Delaney told her she "deserved to win because my book was free of objectionable matter and suitable for family reading"; while television's Robert Robinson gave her patronisingly little airtime on The Book Programme and scarcely concealed his view that she shouldn't have won. And after she died, even her memorial meeting was disfigured by the turkey-cocking of a young male novelist.

Happily, Fitzgerald gave as good as she got:

[She displayed] a clear moral sense and a sharp dismissal of those she found wanting. Robert Skidelsky is "this absurdly irritating man", Lord David Cecil's lecture on Rossetti was "abysmal", Rushdie's latest novel is "a load of codswallop". Then there is "the dread Malcolm Bradbury", who "seems to be made of some plastic or semi-fluid substance which gives way or changes in your hands", and who patronises her work ("I felt like throwing the pale green mayonnaise over him"); and Douglas Hurd, Booker chairman, with his pitiful notion of what a novel should be.

To be fair Barnes himself is no slouch in the snidely-dismissive department. Or I think that’s what it is: I am still trying to sort out the implications of describing a particular entery as “Pooterishness with a difference: first, it is self-aware; and second, there is a high-boho dash to it.” Pooterish maybe and high-boho for sure, and Barnes induces you, if not actually to read the letters, at least to salute the talent that produced them.

Hat tip: Joel.

Update: this link won't last past July 29, but evidently Barnes is outing Fitzgerald this week on BBC's A Good Read. Joel adds: "honorary book fair participants."

Sweden Watch

..and new to me:

...Swedish equivalent of surf 'n turf: pickled herring and pickled pigs-feet.

Thanks, John. Yukkety yuk.

Book Fair: Crank on Sittenfeld

I first met my friend The New York Crank, some 50-plus years ago when we were both pretending to be hard-bitten newspaper reporters. Now the Crank weighs in at the Underbelly summer Book Fair. I can't quite tell whether he is kidding or not (and as I write, he is of on vacation and isn't around to explain). Anyway--Crank's choice is American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld, scheduled for publication on September 2. The publisher's blurb says:
A kind, bookish only child born in the 1940s, Alice learned the virtues of politeness early on from her stolid parents and small Wisconsin hometown. ... [W]hen she met boisterous, charismatic Charlie Blackwell, she hardly gave him a second look: She was serious and thoughtful, and he would rather crack a joke than offer a real insight; he was the wealthy son of a bastion family of the Republican party, and she was a school librarian and registered Democrat. Comfortable in her quiet and unassuming life, she felt inured to his charms. And then, much to her surprise ....
Comment: No points at all for concluding that this is another effort to turn the Presidency into a Profit Center. Actually, I think when they say "inured," they mean "immune," but you can't get good help any more. Anyway, feel free to fashion your own book from there.
Already a bristling comment thread at Amazon. And FWIW, apptly Sittenfeld is a she. Meanwhile, for your convenience, we will be collecting all the Book Fair posts here.

Mother may I?

This is too easy but I yield to the impulse...

I went to Google translator for a quick reality check on Italian "posso." The translator yield "can," which seemed quite right.

Whereupon Google ads responded with a sales pitch on how to get fat off my butt.

Recalls the famed World War butcher shop sign:

Ladies do not bring your fat cans in here on Fridays.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Happy Birthday to Me

First Underbelly post went up two years ago, at 8:43 pm July 25, 2006.

Book Fair: Former Prof on Miyabe

And now, we turn the mike over to Former Prof, for the first-so-far bankruptcy posting at the Underbelly summer Book Fair.

All She Was Worth (1999) by Miyuki Miyabe. This is a Japanese crime novel by an award-winner author. But it has a surprisingly accessible view of Japanese consumerism, Japanese privacy law and, of course my big interest, Japanese consumer bankruptcy law (which actually plays a central role in the plot). It works as escapist fiction, and as a slice of Japanese life.

Comment: new to me, and much thanks--I'm going to Japan for the first time later in the fall, and I'm trying to do a bit of advanced reading. The catalog of all Book Fair posts is here.

I've Moved, Sort Of

Well after a long delay, I finally took possession of my new office in the Stalinist cellblock. It’s got a window with a splendid view of the neighboring Stalinist cellblock plus, to be fair, some kind of elegant coniferous tree that I couldn’t pretend to identify. It’s smaller than what I’m used to, but not unbearable. It is breathtakingly short of bookcases—who occupied this space, anyway, graphic artists? It does have a large blackboard which, for a guy who teaches “numbers for lawyers” is a nice touch—but my guess is that no student will ever find this place, or me in it, anyway.

There are actually some other human beings within earshot—some accounting clerks who say they are glad to be here because their old digs were in a windowless basement; one old colleague who says he drops in every so often to pick up his mail, which is usually someplace else. There’s a sign on an office door for an ex dean who, I suspect, will never show up here at all; probably just as well for him and me both. There’s a single restroom at the end of the hall. Somebody has pasted one of those “unisex” thingies on the door, but there is no lock, so somebody (same person?) has conjured a little “occupied/unoccupied” sign, together with a note on the inside reminding you please, please to remember to change the sign.

They said they’d move my stuff over here and they kept their promise—much more, I am dismayed to say, than I would have hoped or wished. So: among things that showed up here I find my two (2) familiar wastebaskets, two (2) chairs that I had stolen out of the faculty lounge at intervals of 5-10 years; one (1) antique TV set that I earnestly intended to abandon—and even a roller-cart full of books that I thought I had set out for the library giveaway shelf. Oh, and also about 20 boxes of “books”—all the ones I couldn’t bear to pitch, even though many of them I suspect I will never look at again, some of which will probably never see so much as the light of the day, except on their last ride to the dumpster.

I am happy to see revisit my collection of teaching hats—two faux tophats, one Sherlock Holmes, one horned Valkyrie model, one weird cutout of flaming antlers, one pullover sunhat form the band of Lester Lannin (he played the second Reagan inaugural—end of western civilization as we know it.

I say there is a window, but it’s not well positioned for gazing out of. So at the moment, I’m gazing at a blank wall; I wonder what it would cost to get a 5’x7’ photo of, say, the Piazza Navona or Machu Picchu to help me get through the very small amount of time I intend to spend in this place. Now, back to the coffee shop for some more serious study…

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Obama: Some Hopes and Concerns

Last week’s meme: if the economy is in such a mess, how come we aren’t doing so badly (link)? New meme: if Obama is so popular, how come he is up less than ten points in the polls?

The Wall Street Journal offered a characteristically thorough and fair-minded review of the evidence on this topic this morning, but I would like to add a nuance (“Voter Unease with Obama…” (link)).

First: the executive summary du jour seems to be that the voters are still waiting to be sold on Obama—more than waiting to be sold, they are still skeptical, suspicious. It is easy to paint this as sheer racism: “Doesn’t share our values--What kind of name is ‘Obama’ anyway?” Fair enough: I haven’t the slightest doubt that there is indeed a vital undertone of racism in the exercise.

But I wouldn’t dismiss these reservations so quickly. Let me spin a thread out of my own gizzard. Were the election today, I would vote for Obama, for at least two very good reasons. One, the country so needs to be free of the grip of corrupt Republicanism. And two, McCain has turned out to be such an awful candidate—a lot worse, I’d have to say, than I ever expected.

But I’d have my fingers crossed, and I don’t think the simplistic explanations get you far enough. On the one hand, I’m deeply unmoved by the rhetoric about America’s “first black president”—didn’t Bill Clinton already fill that role? And is Obama black? Equally, I think he it is laughable to say that he is some kind of secret Muslim.

And yet, and yet. And yet two things. First, let’s quit kidding ourselves, folks: this guy is untried. Aside from his campaign (of which more in a moment), the biggest thing he’s run is the Harvard Law Review. If we were picking presidents on seasoning and track record, Obama wouldn’t even get to suit up (which is what drives Bill Richardson so crazy, I suppose, not to mention Hillary Clinton).

I can think of two answers to the “experience” argument. One, Obama doesn’t seem to put a foot wrong in the campaign. Well: he’s had some slipups, but they’ve been minor, and he seems to recover quite nicely. My friend Ron offers a telling insight. Remember Dave Axelrod, Obama’s chief campaign honcho? Ron points out that Axelrod, for all his notoriety, has never had a winning presidential candidate before. If (if!) he is on a winning streak this year, then it may just be the candidate who deserves the credit.

A second objection to no experience: just as with “brain power,” “experience” is not always a defining criterion for success in the Presidency. Think of perhaps our two most successful presidents: Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. Each vastly less experienced than his opponent and each (particularly Lincoln) wildly inexperienced by any measure. And think of JFK: not our most successful President, but not a bad one; a sort of a greenhorn who seemed to display a set of fully matured instincts from the moment he hit the front door. (in all three cases, I should say that the vanquished should have been the winner on grounds of experience alone).

There’s another reason for concern about Obama that may seem less “substantive,” but still needs to be taken seriously. That is: Obama is one more in the (almost) unbroken procession of candidates who seem to betray this apparently insurmountable inability to connect. God in heaven, what is it with this party? We’re looking for fun and excitement and they give us—John Kerry. Al Gore. Michael Dukakis. Jimmy Carter. And, of course, Adlai Stevenson. Are you ready to holler “uncle” yet? The voters are: fairly or unfairly, they just do not trust candidates who are (strike that: who appear to be) so emotionally remote. No wonder it is so easy to dismiss them all as a bunch of chardonnay-drinking pansies. Is Obama going to join this long procession? Boy, I hope not. But I remarked to Mrs.B that I was expecting to see Obama someday soon in a Wilkes-Barre diner with some off-duty firemen. “He’d make a mess of it,” she said. I’m not sure she’s right but it’s plausible enough that I don’t want to find out. Just once, can’t we nominate somebody like this guy?

Ah well, that’s dreaming. Meanwhile, we have Obama who, as Walter Lippman said in a similar context, might be described as a pleasant young man who, without any particular qualifications, wants very much to be President. And Lippman said that about who? Now, let me see… (link).

Update: A voice in my head says: does Obama tell the truth about the Federal budget? No, of course he doesn't tell the truth about the Federal budget. No candidate ever does. The best thing to be said about Obama is that he probably knows he is lying through his teeth. McCain, to all appearances, doesn't even suspect.

Jumping Jacks in Every Garage!

I don't suppose there is anything too over-the-top about this guy wanting to be a Congressman. But when he says "I want the respect of a Congressman..."

Thanks, John.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Where Have These Guys Been All My Life?

I mean Musopen. And Econmagic.

Update: An e-mail from Nancy prompts me to add graphjam.

Another Book Fair: Hing on Gladwell

For the next installment in the Underbelly summer book fair, here's my sometimes colleague Bill Hing at the UC Davis Law School:
I recommend The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell, because, among other things, the book reinforces what I've long believed: that one person, one idea, can make a difference at the right time.
Editor's note: Bill is also the co-host (with Kevin Johnson, who will be offering a recommendation here later) at the influential ImmigrationProf Blog. I see that Tipping Point gets 922 Amazon reviews--probably not a record, but surely in the top tier (Toni's Amsterdam weighs in with a paltry 291). For your convenience, we will be collecting all the Book Fair posts here.

I Have No Idea What the Backstory Is Here...

...but I love it.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Hopkirk and Balzac and Unremembered Memory

History, said Marx, lies like a nightmare on the backs of the living. “Another Munich…” “Another Viet Nam…” “Another 9/11…” It’s remarkable how much our politics is shaped or determined or distorted by our fears of disappointments of what went before. Stuff I’ve been reading lately offers a couple of remarkable instances of how much this true not only of things that we remember, but of things we don’t even know we remember.

One: here’s Peter Hopkirk, bard of the century (plus) long conflict between Russia and Britain over Central Asia and ultimately, over India itself. Hopkirk’s half dozen or so books are a marvelous catalog of thrust and counterthrust of (the title of his magnum opus) the “Great Game.” I happened to be reading Hopkirk’s In Search of Kim (1996)—in which Hopkirk seeks the truth behind Kipling’s novel— at just about the same time that I was reading Legacy of Ashes (2007), Tim Weiner’s new history of the CIA. After a while I got a curious kind of doppelganger: I told myself we have seen all this before—the tricks and counter-tricks, the plotting and the paranoia: so much of what the Americans and the Russians did for 50 years after World War II served to mirror what the British and the Russians had done for the 100 years before. Certainly Hopkirk felt he understood the moral:

…I am forced to share Kipling’s view of Russian duplicity and everything that has happened since—during both world wars, between the wars, and throughout the long years of the Cold War—has simply enforced this view. (`40)

So Hopkirk in 1996: I wonder what he would think of Putin’s Russia today.

And two: Balzac in The Wrong Side of Paris (Jordan Stump trans. 2003). I won’t labor out the whole plot; I want to focus on the point where old Bernard tells Godefroid how he dreams of getting good medical treatment for his daughter:

Five days ago, Monsieur, the neighborhood doctor…told me that he was not up to the challenge of curing an illness that takes on a new form every two weeks. Neuroses are the despair of medicine, he told me, for their roots lie in the system that cannot be explored. He told me of a certain Jewish doctor, widely considered a charlatan, it seems; but he observed that the man is a foreigner, a Polish refugee, and that he has earned the bitter jealousy of his fellows through his patients’ extraordinary recoveries, which have caused a great stir… (134)

No points at all for the reader who mutters “Sigmund Freud,” and marvels that Balzac is writing in the 1840s (and about the 1830s), so a generation before the eminent Viennese was even born. The doctor—his name is “Halperson” –clearly fascinates Balzac; he comes to dominate the latter portion of the novel. He’s a species of wandering Jew: a person of great insight and great evil: wise, compassionate, insightful, grasping and vainglorious—in short, the bearer of almost every stereotype that non-Jewish Europeans in the 19th Century visited upon Jews (not incidentally, Balzac makes a dreadful hash of Jews Polish politics, but leave that for another day).

I don’t for a moment begin to suggest that Balzac “had it right” about Halperson, any more than Hopkirk necessarily “had it right” about the Russians—Balzac, at least, is far too confused and self-contradictory to be said to be “right” in measurable sense at all. I would say that reading either Balzac or Hopkirk is a bracing reminder of just how deep and durable and persistent our cultural equipment can be.

Real-time Budget Hawkery

The budget hawks at Concord Coalition are starting a weekly (while Congress is in session) budget report that you can get by email. It's actually a rebranding of a report already being written and edited by Charles Konigsberg, longtime Washington budget wonk, lately hired by CC as its chief budget counsel.

CC sent out an introductory email to its list this morning. They don't seem to be showcasing it at the main website yet, but I assume you can get it for the asking.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Free Love and Communism? There's No Communism Here!

Have long suspected that monogamy was cooked up by the beta males to keep the alphas from getting all the chicks. But now this, about the nether reaches of the Russian Empire in the chaos after the revolution of 1917:

Some of the new Soviets which were springing up everywhere had very uncertain concepts of what Marxism-Leninism was all about. North of the Caspian, at Suizran, a proclamation had been issued ordering the nationalization of women. All the best and most beautiful women, it declared, had hitherto belonged to the bourgeoisie, while the peasants and workers had had to put up with the second best. This was unfair, and from now on all women were to become public property

--Peter Hopkirk, Setting the East Ablaze 79 (1984)

By Their Blog Choices Ye Shall Know Them ...

..and these guys are pretty much my cup of tea. There must be others, but these are the only guys I know who regularly talk seriously about the full range of money problems the next president --any next president, even Ralph Nader or Bob Barr--is going to face. Still, I suspect pigs will fly before they get anything like the kind of realism that (as they so clearly demonstrate) we so clearly need. The Republicans have an eight-year record of demonstrating that all they care about is (a) starting wars and (b) not paying for them. Lucky for McCain he doesn't know anything about economics: he couldn't sleep nights if he did. And a Democratic presidency--particularly one coupled with a six-seven-eight-nine vote edge in the Senate--is enough to scare they daylights out of anybody with a calculator (indeed, Obama could well turn out to be one of those presidents who discover that your worst enemies are your friends).

Still it is not all gloom. My current fave bloggers did put me onto the best Jon Stewart clip ever.*

*Actually, not quite. But good enough, so let the point pass.

Walker's Paradise

I suppose the only reason to create a list like this one is to start an argument, but on the whole, I'd say that this particular instance is actually pretty anodyne. Still, if the second best walk in San Francisco is the Financial District, we are on notice with a scandalous truth--that is: San Francisco, whatever its charms, is not that-all great a walker's city. Okay: some of the neighborhoods have their charm, but they tend to be isolated, a bit hard to access, and on the whole not as exciting or charming as you might guess for all the hype (and let's not talk about hills). Market Street is a slum, and if you must have a slum, there is a far more interesting slum on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley across the Bay (even without Cody's). Indeed, it's hard to think of any American city--okay, I will grant you Manhattan--that has the persistent seductive appeal of Rome (my #1) or Paris (#2) or Prague (#3) or Florence (#4)--at least if you find those moments when they are not inundated with others such as yourself trying to enjoy their walker-charms.

Nice to see Portland so justly well represented, although I never realized before that this is called "Hosford" (if it is). Years ago, one of my students (an ex-Reedie) pointed out that Portland was one of the best cities in America to be poor in. After the depredations of a generation of high-tech wealth, this insight surely isn't as true as it used to be. Still, I'd say Portland persists in conveying more in the way of scruffy, grass-roots elegance than any other city in America.

Book Fair III: usbj on Nussbaum

For episode III in the Underbelly summer Book Fair, we welcome our friend usb j (that's Mr. and Mrs. usbj's little boy) who directs our attention to a central issue in public discourse:

I recommend Martha Nussbaum, Liberty of Conscience (Basic Books 2007), which is an exercise in intellectual and political history. Her thesis is that the American tradition regarding the interplay of religion and the public polity is one of fairness to all in which the foundational policy traces back to Roger Williams, his disputes with John Cotton, and charters he was able to wrangle from Parliament and the Restoration Crown. Lest one think that means fairness only among Christians, note that Williams particularly emphasized fairness to native American religions. Having laid that foundation, the remainder of the book reviews how that policy played itself out in the late colonial and early national periods and then how specific controversies have been dealt with in the two ensuing centuries. There is fascinating analysis of anti-Catholicism in American poliltics from 1830-1960, as will as the flag salute issues early in World War II; followed by an assessment of present issues. Conclusion: the traditional theme of fairness is under assault from Right and Left in ways that could have profound consequences in our increasingly religiously-diverse society.

Thanks to usbj for challenging us to get serious about a topic that needs to be taken seriously. For your convenience, we will be collecting all the Book Fair posts here.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Shakespeare, Caravaggio, and Four Other Guys

I can remember the first time that ever I saw a Caravaggio.

It was the summer of 1985. I was staying at a pension in Rome, out near the Milvian Bridge. On my first day, my friend Dick Lee—I guess you could say he was my boss—walked me down to the Piazza del Popolo, and into the church of Santa Maria Del Popolo, and up to the Cerasi Chapel, where are displayed the Conversion of St. Paul and the Crucifixion of St. Peter, two of the defining moments in the career of the painter, and indeed, in the history of Westeren Art.

I’d like to say I was stunned and bowled over by the spectacle; I can’t, really. I think I knew I was in the presence of something important (Dick told me). But it was all too new and unfamiliar. And anyway, jet lag.

I’ve had the great good fortune to go back there several more times since, and now I think I get it. Indeed, if you had to push almost everything else off a cliff, I'd say today that these (along with the Calling of St. Matthew, in the Church of San Luigi di Francesi, just a few blocks away) are on the short list of stuff I would try to save.

I’ve been thinking of all three of these paintings lately as I’ve been reading M: The Man who Became Caravaggio (1998) Peter Robb’s eccentric but appreciative biography of the artist. There seem to be a lot of biographies of Caravaggio and no wonder: with all the whoring and the swordplay, he offers more than enough to keep the biographer busy. Robb’s is perhaps the most informal of the lot, and it’s full of irritating stylistic tics (I think he may have spent too much time in the company of Robert Hughes). But he’s an enthusiast: when he turns his attention to a Caravaggio painting, he gives it his complete engagement and response.

Reading Robb, I did stumble on one insight, I’d never thought of before. That is: how close Caravaggio’s career tracks Shakespeare’s. For each of them, the flourit is the last decade of the 16th Century and the first of the 17th. The three great religious works that I mentioned above—they must date from just about exactly the time of Shakespeare’s great tragedies.

Of course, there isn’t the slightest reason to suppose they ever heard of each other (I forget who it was who said that Shakespeare must have been Italian). But it is hard to imagine how we would understand the world without them.

Afterthought: a propos of not much, one of the oddest pieces of Caravaggio arcanae must be this, which one of the teenagers in the family keeps on her bedroom wall. It is, indeed, the Calling of St. Matthew and it is, indeed, the Beatles, also known as “Renaissance Minstrels.” I have no idea whose idea it was or why, and it seems to be pretty obscure; fact is, I couldn’t even find on the web without help. I wonder if it is a bootleg, or simply a record so bad that no one wants to remember it.

Update: Thanks to Ken for an improved picture of the Beatles album--which, he assures me, is indeed a bootleg.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Balzac Brings Himself Full Circle

God bless the brave or persistent soul who persuaded Modern Library to republish Balzac’s Wrong Side of Paris in a splendid new translation by Jordan Stump (2003). Brave, because it is almost impossible to imagine what sort of audience the publisher foresaw. Not many people read Balzac at all any more (not even in France, they say). And if you do care about Balzac, this would be about the least promising item with which to start. But if you have read some Balzac—three-four-five of that dozen-odd titles kept in print at Penguin, perhaps, or the few other scattered remnants from other houses--then Wrong Side can serve as an almost perfect pendant, completing, as it were, the monde de Balzac as completely and convincingly as anything you could imagine.

This may sound like a perverse kind of a pitch, because in some ways, Wrong Side is absolutely representative Balzac. It’s got a young man at sea in the great city; it’s got an old man obsessed with his daughter; it’s got a scheming landlady; it’s got crimes and betrayals, and long, loving detailed descriptions of person and place (and he wrote it to pay his bills, which is as typical as you can get). And wait, folks, there’s more, all within 208 pages.

Yet in another way, this is the least typical Balzac you are likely to read. We think of Balzac as the poet of the city, the passionate bard of Paris under Louis-Philippe. This is the Balzac of his most familiar work: of Cousine Bette, Le Père Goriot, La Rabouilleuse>, Illusions Perdues.

In one face, Balzac surely was a city man, as much as Dickens or Dostoevsky or James Joyce or Robert Musil. But it’s easy to forget that he was in the city but not of the city—that at the end of the day, he was a high-church royalist whose fascination was always animated by a kind of revulsion at what he saw. Indeed we forget that his first successful book—the first he counted as part of his Comedie Humaine—is Les Chouans, a story of a reactionary military revolt in the countryside against the revolution.

Wrong Side—it says here it was the last work he completed—give him a chance to bring the wheel full circle, or better, to set things right. This time we are remain in Paris, and in the narrative (near) present. But this time, we have the services of the church, to provide order, to set a standard for decency, and to put things right.

Balzac wrote and published Wrong Side in two parts, and it reads like two loosely-jointed stories. The first is a kind of manifesto—the “last lecture” of an old man (he was not yet 50, but he was working himself to death). It’s hard to imagine anyone reading it today without irony—yet clearly Balzac was not ironic: he meant every word.

The second part shifts gears somewhat. In the context of his previous manifesto, Balzac here lets loose a plot so full of melodrama that it makes the plots of his contemporary Donizetti look like stark realism. Readerly irony helps again, although it is so fast-paced and full of invention, you find yourself sucked along in spite of yourself.

But the end, you reflect on the whole novel not just as itself, but as a coda, or criticism or commentary on everything that went before. This is why I did it. This is what it was all about. Now you understand.

Understand: you may or may not “understand” Balzac’s world, so diverse and inconsistent, but you probably do understand Balzac a little better, and every part of his world is richer as a result.

Afterthought: There is a fine, warm-hearted, appreciative introduction by Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker that may help to reassure you that you are not wasting your time. Also a crisp introductory note from the translator, who has turned out as convincing a Balzac translation as any I know.

More on: "If Things Are So Bad, Why Are They So Good?"

DeLong has been puzzling over the bad/good issue. Now Tim Duy weighs in with a thoughtful response (hint: think "outsourcing").

Afterthought: Tim Duy? Oh, of course, Tim Duy.

Update: DeLong responds. Yves Smith weighs in.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Mock Tofu

...chicken fat, puréed pork loin, and five cups of piping-hot tallow...

I Cried Because I Had No Shoes ...

...until I met a Wall Street Journal reporter, trying to fight the loonies in the airline business in the company of a three-year-old and an infant:

I'm betting those speculators at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange were behind the retention of that counter agent who recently placed me, my 3-year-old and my infant in completely different rows for a cross-country flight, instructing me to "sort it out at the gate." The CME undoubtedly also hired the gate agent who told me to "fix it on the plane." Ditto the stewardess who yelled at me for not dealing with this problem before I boarded and then ordered a dozen people to shift seats, delaying our departure. Not that it mattered, since we sat on the runway for two hours.

HT Carpe Diem.

Book Fair II: Bernhard on McEwan

Here's Episode II of the Underbelly summer Book Fair. We pass the mike to my opera-loving friend Toni Bernhard, for a suggestion that has nothing to do with opera:

I recommend Ian McEwan's Amsterdam: A Novel. Not the best reviewed of his books, it's my favorite of his and, for you beachcombers, a quick read. One reviewer called the characters soulless but McEwan knew what he was doing. The plot: two men, former lovers of the same woman, meet at her funeral and make a pact I shall not divulge. The novel is biting, dark, funny, very British and only 198 pages long. It's not a profound book but it's prose at its best and that's good enough for me.

Afterthought: Toni's Amazon opera reviews are here. Much more book fair still to come. For your convenience, we will be collecting all the Book Fair posts here.

I'm Not Gonna Bother Look at the Video

It can't be as good as the headline:
Man electrocutes pickle to demonstrate power of Christianity
Link. Alternate headlines:
A Little Man-on-Pickle Action Here

What Would Jesus Electrocute?

Look Out, She's Gonna Blow!

Look Out, She's Gonna Blow!

From the Lawrence (KS) Jounal-World & News (link):
Scientists Predict Hydrogen Car Boom
H/T: Underbelly's Kansas bureau.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

McCain, Bush and the Character Thing

I whined last night about John McCain being ignorant and incurious. A little voice in my head tells me I’ve got it wrong here. Not wrong on facts but wrong on significance: knowledge/intelligence (the voice says) are not good benchmarks measuring success among presidents. .

Consider the man who may be the smartest—and also the best informed and hardest working—president of our time: Richard Nixon. In some ways, Nixon was actually a pretty good president, but in so many others, he was awful. Fred Greenstein says somewhere that he is a great instance of why it is so pointless to try to rate our presidents. For our purposes, the point is that bis intelligence helped him to be who he was. It was his character that poisoned him; that vengeful paranoia that made him so vulnerable to the forces that brought him down.

Bill Clinton is perhaps another whose indisputable grasp of issues was hampered by his equally indisputable defects of character. And here I think there is a good deal of misunderstanding: the chattering classes tend to like him because of intelligence, whereas I think for most voters, his intelligence as a side issue, if not an impediment. If they liked him at all (and many did) it was because of the way he related to themm, and they identified with him—because, in short, he was trailer trash.

The other end of the spectrum is Gerald Ford—perhaps the only president in my lifetime with whom you would not dread to be caught in an elevator. It’s conventional to say that he wasn’t clever. He certainly wasn’t brilliant like Nixon or Clinton. The record is clear, however, that he was curious; that he was open to evidence, and that he did the best he knew how to weigh facts in the balance, and to act on the best advice he could get. Eisenhower and Bush fit someplace close to the same model. None of them was a perfect president—how many are?—but as occupants of the office, they are pretty good exemplars of what we want a president to be.

The great exception to all of this is Reagan, whose incuriosity seems almost in a class of its own. But the case of Reagan is always more tricky than it appears at first blush. Lou Cannon liked to say: people think Reagan isn’t smart—well he isn’t smart, but he isn’t dumb, either. The fact is that Reagan was unmatched at articulating and communicating a vision--and getting lucky didn’t hurt him a bit. He was so good at that one job (and so lucky) that he didn’t need to let the facts get in his way.

Seen in this light, what is wrong with W is not so much that he is ignorant or incurious—which he is—so much as that he is mean, petty, bullying and vengeful. His incuriosity is not just an incident: it’s a weapon that he likes to use to club his enemies.

I’ll stick to my guns, then, that McCain is ignorant and incurious. But his success or a failure as a president will (would?) turn less on his raw abilities than on his character. I’ll also stick to my guns that he isn’t as nasty and mean-spirited as the incumbent. The question is whether his own traits of character are enough to supervene over the other, perhaps more obvious, shortcomings in his resume.

Best CIA Book Ever?

I set down some thoughts a few days ago on Tim Weiner's Legacy of Ashes. Turns out that bigfoot blogger Spencer Ackerman called it "the greatest [book] ever written about the CIA." Although I haven't read that many books about the CIA, this one sounds like a stretch to me; apparently so also to Jeff Stein, proprietor of Spy Talk, and far more knowledgeable on these matters than I (link)--he's not persuaded either. Stein does move the ball downfield, though, by asking: what really is the best CIA book ever? Stein himself suggests Tom Powers' The Man Who Kept the Secrets, which seems plausible to me--I haven't read the book, but I follow Powers' stuff with great enthusiasm at the New York Review of Books. Stein's piece includes a number of alternative candidates. Remarkably, nobody mentioned Evan Thomas' The Very Best Men: Four Who Dared: The Early Years of the CIA (1995)--maybe disqualified for egregious overuse of the colon, but still an absorbing account of the "first days" at the company. And while it is not quite on point, one would want to remember Anthony Cave Brown's Wild Bill Donovan: The Last Hero (1982), about the man who built the OSS, the CIA's World War II precursor, without which the CIA as we know it is pretty much unthinkable.

But for me, a more extraordinary void was--no mention of the work of David Wise, co-author (with Thomas B. Ross) of Invisible Government (1964) which must count as the first good book about the CIA--part of a body of good work about government abuse. Wise/Ross didn't really "disclose" the history of CIA dirty tricks--the practice had been more or less an open secret for a long time. But they certainly showcased the pattern immanent in activities like the overthrow of governments in Iran and Guatamala--along with failed efforts like the attempt at a coup in Indonesia, and, closer to home, the Bay of Pigs.

Stein suggests he'll be doing "CIA novels" later, but I think he can close up shop now: the one and only candidate is Aaron Latham's Orchids for Mother (1977) about the infamous James Jesus Angelton, whose own paranoia about counterspies did as much to destroy our intelligence activities against the Soviet Union as a whole passel of moles. Have heard it said that Latham got a toehold on the project one afternoon when he got drunk with CIA director William Colby--so you know it must be true.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

McCain and Harry

I'm pretty sure I weighed in on this before, but you know, we old guys tend to repeat ourselves. And anyway, I think I've got a new spin. The topic is "presidental candidates" and "confusion."

Story: my friend Hank (who died much too young) practiced law here in Palookaville, in company with his father, Harry. In his day, Harry had been a pillar of the bar, the author of a highly regarded treatise on California mechanic's lien law. By the time I knew him, he was around 90. I didn't come to the office every day, but he did have a few clients who still called on him, and he undertook to give them service.

From time to time when I stopped to visit with Hank, he would say, "by the way, dad wants to see you for a minute." I'd drop into Harry's office and he would present me an issue on a law topic about which I was supposed to know something--typically bankruptcy or chattel security. I'd deal with the question as best I could.

Remember, we're talkin' 90 here. This is a guy who has a right to be confused. And in fact, Harry didn't seem to have the energy or the focus or the detailed command of particulars that he might have had when he was 45.

But here is the point: Harry didn't make mistakes. He may not have got all the details right, but he always knew which direction he was supposed to go and he always got to the right result.

I think it's pretty obvious what is going on here: although in a kind of decline, Harry was trading--successfully--on lifetime of disciplined professionalism, hard work and careful study. He could get away with coasting a little because he had this great reservoir of achievement behind him.

Which brings us, of course, to a certain presidential candidate. John McCain's problem is not that he is "confused" in any codger sense. It is that he always has been confused in the sense of shallow, incurious, indifferent to the facts. I think I kind of surmised this a few months ago, but everything in the campaign would say that it is far worse than I would have guessed.

One is tempted to say: just like the incumbent. Actually, I won't go that far. I do think they share a deep-seated, persistent, perverse incuriosity--one of the worst traits you can imagine in a president. But I give this to McCain: I don't think he is as mean as the incumbent, or as truculent; I don't think he has the sense of grievance that the incumbent seems to carry around like a monkey on his back. This is something, but it's not a lot. McCain is still confused. And age has nothing to do with it. As a presidential candidate, I'd happily trade McCain at 70 for Harry at 90.

The Cover: An Inside-the-Bubble Story

I yield to the impulse to weigh in on the New Yorker cover, but my point is purely technical, not political or philosophical. I quote Kevin Drum:
If artist Barry Blitt had some real cojones, he would have drawn the same cover but shown it as a gigantic word bubble coming out of John McCain's mouth — implying, you see, that this is how McCain wants the world to view Obama.
Hm, good point. But why stop here? In the Photoshop age, there is really nothing to stop somebody else from creating the bubble and slapping the cover inside it, not so? Web 2.0, baby, we are the world. And if you see one, send me a link.

Too True, Too True

Pinched from Overheard in New York:
Watching Harold and Kumar not stoned is like eating bread without butter!

Book Fair I: Lawless on Russo

Welcome to episode #I of the Underbelly summer Book Fair! As promised, we'll be offering book suggestions from a variety of friends, neighbors, blogging colleagues and assorted ruffians of assorted stripes and sizes. First up, we give the microphone to Bob Lawless, professor of business-y law at the University Illinois and a principal proprietor of Credit Slips, your one-stop shopping center for the latest on issues of bankruptcy and credit law. Here's Bob in an academic but non-bankrupt mood:

I recommend Straight Man by Richard Russo because Buce will only let me pick one book. If you're not at a university, it probably qualifies as mildly amusing, but every academic who reads the book finds it a spot on send-up of modern academic life. There are the usual vicious fights because the stakes are so small, as the saying goes about life in a university, but the book's characters also have to grapple with a fight where the stakes are not so small. These struggles force the book's main character, Henry Devereaux, Jr., to grapple with the meaning of his labors in the academic backwater that serves as the book's setting. Indeed, most of the book's characters are grappling with that same question. The book is a great summer read, and one of the few books that I have taken the time to read more than once.

Thanks, Bob--another post later in the week. For your convenience, we will be collecting all the Book Fair posts here.

No Need for Retirement Planning

In Balzac’s Wrong Side of Paris, Népomucène the firewood-boy doesn’t worry about retirement planning:

“You hear that?” said Népomucène to Godefroid. “The old codger’s batty for sure … “

“And do you know how you will be at his age?...”

“Oh! Indeed I do,” answered Népomucène. “I’ll be in a sugar bowl.”

“In a sugar bowl? …”

“Yes, they’ll have used my bones to make bone black. I’ve seen the refiner’s carts often enough at the Catacombs, coming to fetch bone black for their factories. I hear they make it to use sugar.”

And with this philosophical response he went off for another load of wood.

—Honoré de Balzac, The Wrong Side of Paris 247
(Jordan Stump trans., Modern Library 2005)

Barry Ritholtz' Head Explodes

... It is as if someone is running around Washington D.C. with a ball-peen hammer, smacking senior government officials on their skulls. If you find the standard finger pointing hard to fathom, perhaps blunt head trauma is a better explanations for the absurdities proferred.

Books will be written about this period of time, and our descendants will wonder in awe as to how this was allowed to happen. Tulips got nothing on us! ...

Go on, read the whole thing

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Birth Announcement: Rednecks for Obama

Welcome to the Blogosphere, Rednecks for Obama, the creative usufruct of my old friend Ivan who, as I will swear on a stack of redneck bibles, is a north Alabama pig [Oops--see infra] farmer.

Infra: Ivan sets me straight:
never had pigs. now have a flock of sheep and a herd of goats, total about 125 animals. had to sell my small cattle herd two years ago -- drought. really liked raising calfs -- had a great bull.
Well, farmer anyway. Sorry 'bout that.

Coming Soon: The Underbelly Book Fair

Coming soon, folks--we're almost ready for the rollout of the great Underbelly Book Fair (my fingers itch to type 'Faire'). Here's the deal: I asked 10-20,000 of my best friends (perhaps including you, dear reader) to suggest a title that you'd like to encourage folks to read--along with a brief review or précis, as they thought fit.

I got a gratifying reponse, and I've got a compelling file of suggested entries in the warm-up circle ready to go--highbrow, lowbrow, one that may be a joke; one recommender recommended his own book, which suits me just fine. A few other folks are playing with me, but I think I can tease them along. BTW if you got the original mailing and haven't yet responded, it is not too late. If you did not get the original e-mail, don't be dismayed: feel free to enter your suggetion in the comments or email me on your own (yes, I know, my email address is not listed on this blog, but I suspect a 20-second Google search will blow my cover).