September 29, 2004
On Books

My latest American Enterprise Online books column has just been published. Most of it is a review of the just-published The Complete Cartoons of The New Yorker, a 655-page treasure trove:

Particularly touching is a 1937 letter from William Steig to an attendee of the art meeting about the notoriously hands-on editor Harold Ross: "Would you like someone to suggest that you select a paragraph from one of your stories, change it so that it becomes the opposite of what you intended, and throw away the rest? I appeal to you as a fellow human-being. Is the whole world going mad?"

If it is, it has certainly been captured in the pages of the New Yorker. The book is much more than a collection of pretty pictures; it is a cultural history of America in the twentieth century.

I haven't seen this book reviewed anywhere else yet. But at least click through to see the two cartoons!

September 26, 2004
Thought for the day

"Fear cannot be without hope, nor hope without fear."

—Spinoza

September 16, 2004
On Books

My latest books column for The American Enterprise Online is up. The bulk of it is a review of Barry Schwartz's The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, a searching look at the explosion of consumer choice in the last decades:

Schwartz's thesis is that the choices capitalism provides brings are too many--we are overloaded, stressed, and depressed because of the almost infinite possibilities we must choose from all day long.

The unprecedented availability of consumer products has created a world of choice unknown to any previous generation. Schwartz details the mind-boggling number of options even at a local, medium-sized supermarket: 285 varieties of cookies, 275 cereals, 230 soups, 75 instant gravies, and 40 toothpastes. Among Goldfish crackers alone, you can choose from 20 varieties.

And it's not just in the realm of shopping that we have so many more options. Schwartz may be hesitant to acknowledge this, but loosened social mores and multiculturalism--not just capitalism--have introduced increased freedom to choose in areas like religious observance, sexual relations, work, and education. People who once led rather similar lives--their roles relatively proscribed for them by family, tradition, and society--now have the ability to live almost any way they choose.

September 13, 2004
Not going gently

My latest Brainwash column is a review of Julian Barnes' new short story collection, The Lemon Table. Barnes' first novel, Metroland, is one of the best contemporary novels I've read, so I looked forward to Barnes' meditations on aging and death, the theme of the collection:

No one is happy here; nor, in Barnes' view, are they satisfied with the answers. "I expect I'll find myself doing sums," says the wistful narrator of "Appetite." "Like: twenty or thirty years ago he spent two or three days working with all the skill and concentration at his disposal to earn money I'll now spend in an hour or two getting a nurse to wipe his bottom and put up with the jabber of a naughty five-year-old." But it is not because these characters are reflecting on the Four Last Things--death, judgment, heaven, and hell. For Barnes, who seems untroubled by questions of belief, their concerns are strictly worldly: has their time here on Earth been completely wasted?

September 11, 2004
Thought for the day

The difficult part of love
Is being selfish enough
Is having the blind persistence
To upset someone’s existence
Just for your own sake—
What cheek it must take.

Philip Larkin

September 10, 2004
BYT redux

Bright Young Things, a film adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's novel Vile Bodies, opens in DC and other cities today. I reviewed the movie when it was shown at the DC Film Festival earlier this year.

September 08, 2004
Thought for the day

"I know that personal relations are the real life, for ever and ever."

—E.M. Forster, Howards End

September 04, 2004
Waugh x 4

The complicated relationships between four generations of writers is chronicled in Alexander Waugh's new book, Fathers and Sons: The Autobiography of a Family. Alexander's father was Auberon Waugh, the late, great newspaper columnist; Auberon's father was Evelyn Waugh, one of the twentieth century's greatest novelists.

The Telegraph talks to Alexander, who defends his grandfather's infamous occasion of gluttony:

Notoriously, Bron claimed that Evelyn, after the war, had made all his children sit round and watch while he scoffed their banana rations with cream and sugar.

"Amazing how that sunk into the public consciousness as a sheer grotesque example of Evelyn Waugh's evil as a father," says Alexander - but he points out that Bron's first memory of his father was of Evelyn coming home from the war, and his siblings rushing out from tea to greet him. Bron took advantage of the moment to clear the table of jam tarts and stuff as many as he could into his pockets.

Alexander believes that the banana story was true: "He was a very greedy little boy, and he definitely would have remembered the bananas and he definitely would have resented them. But my point in the book is that you cannot trust the testimony of a very greedy jam tart thief, who would rather have a jam tart than meet his father."

Unfortunately, like some other British memoirs, the book has no release date set for the U.S.

September 01, 2004
Now a books columnist

I am now officially a regular columnist for The American Enterprise Online. My column on books will appear on alternating Wednesdays.

My latest piece was published today. Much of it is devoted to a review of James Marcus' Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot.com Juggernaut:

One unforeseen consequence--collateral damage, if you will--of Amazon's rise has been the democratization of literary criticism. Everyone's a critic now. Anyone who has mastered the art of the SEND button, that is. Spelling, punctuation, grammar, and coherence are optional. Amazon's reviewers are there the fastest (if not with the mostest), and if you don't like what "A reader from Poughkeepsie" has to say, keep scrolling.

As Marcus relates, however, Amazon embraced the do-it-yourself ethos only later, of necessity. At first, two dozen drudges, including a former Village Voice Literary Supplement editor and Jacques Barzun's old copy editor, cranked out Guinness Book of World Record quantities of reviews, 50 words at a time. One hack once achieves 137 reviews in a week--a feat this reviewer cannot begin to contemplate.

Marcus, now translated to the rarefied (but increasingly irrelevant) literary environs of the New York Times, Washington Post, and the Atlantic, admits of this frenetic scribbling, "It sounded less than reviewing and more like a pie-eating contest." Still, he had tradition on his side: "Samuel Johnson dictating the Rambler essays directly to the printer. Balzac with his coffee, Kerouac with his speed." The first day on the job, he reviewed 17 Patrick O'Brien novels.

New York's finest

Ah, the New New York. American Spectator reporter (and fine writer) Shawn Macomber was arrested yesterday along with demonstrators to the Republican Convention—and other reporters. Police refused to honor official convention press credentials.

In the shadow

One of my favorite pianists, Angela Hewitt, reviews a new biography of Glenn Gould in the Times Literary Supplement. Hewitt writes charmingly of the other Canadian pianist famous for Bach:

As a kid I saw him regularly on Canadian television. “Who’s that kook?”, I asked my parents. Playing with his nose practically on the keyboard, and always at tempos that even at that age I knew were bizarre, he was clearly recognizable as a serious presence in Canadian musical life, but not, perhaps, one to be closely imitated.
I previously wrote here about the movie Thirty Two Short Films about Glenn Gould.