July 31, 2005
High-minded silliness

The Washington Times' book section today features my review of Jasper Fforde's latest novel, The Big Over Easy:

The sleuth: Detective Inspector Jack Spratt, a giant killer with an irresistible desire to climb huge beanstalks. The deceased: Humperdink Stuyvesant Van Dumpty III, aka Humpty Dumpty, a big egg with an even bigger pocketbook and a taste for young women. The crime: a fall off a wall that looks increasingly like foul (or fowl) play.

Sounds rather silly, doesn't it? But miraculously, Jasper Fforde has exploited childhood story elements and created a gripping, funny, intelligent mystery...

Like the creators of cartoons for adults like "The Simpsons" and "South Park," Mr. Fforde uses fantasy to dissect real life in ways he might not get away with if his characters were more grounded in reality. His world, for example, takes our media-obsessed culture to its perhaps logical conclusion. "Modern policing isn't just about catching criminals," the superintendent explains. "It's about good copy and ensuring that cases can be made into top-notch documentaries on the telly. Public approval is the all-important currency these days, and police budgets ebb and flow on the back of circulation and viewing figures."

July 28, 2005
Is this why polls show low regard for journalists?

The Washington Post ran a story today on disgraced New York Times writer Michael Finkel, who has just published a memoir.

He got a phone call from a reporter who told him that a man named Christian Longo, wanted on charges of killing his wife and three children in Oregon, had been apprehended in Mexico. Longo had adopted a false identity while on the lam: He'd been posing as New York Times writer Michael Finkel...

"Dear Mr. Longo," he wrote. "Yes, it is actually me -- Michael Finkel of The New York Times. Or, rather, formerly of The New York Times." He wrote that he didn't mind Longo using his name. He told Longo he'd like to talk to him, "because at the same time that you were using my name, I lost my own," meaning his reputation as a writer. He wrote that he would be "grateful and honored" if Longo would consider talking to him.

July 27, 2005
Art and life

Today's Wall Street Journal has an interesting story about how the New York Police Department is making use of the Frick Collection to improve its officers' observational skills. The museum's head of education had already been teaching a similar class to medical students.

Capt. Ernest Pappas frowned in concentration as he stood before Vermeer's "Mistress and Maid" in the Frick's plush West Gallery and was asked to describe the painting.

"This woman is right-handed, of well-to-do means, and the pen appears to be in the dropped position," Mr. Pappas said, assessing the mistress. Unsure about the other figure in the picture, the maid, the 42-year-old asked his colleagues whether they thought she was delivering bad news. "Is she assuming a defensive position? Do you think that's a smirk?"

Though he hadn't so carefully analyzed a painting before, Mr. Pappas immediately saw how it related to his detective work in Queens: "Crimes -- and art -- can be solved by looking at the little details."

July 26, 2005
On Books

My latest American Enterprise Online books column takes a look at modern Britain through A.N. Wilson's latest novel, My Name Is Legion:

As in all good satire, no one is spared. The do-gooder young Jewish atheist intellectual is just as much of a target as the devout Anglo-Catholic West Indian grandmother. The left-wing priest is just as flawed as the exploitative newspaper baron. Wilson writes of the Legion’s politics, “The Good Guys, paradoxically, were those who had in fact done most to erode the 1950s England of Esmé’s imagination: the Good Guys politically were the right-wing Americans, and the big multinational companies. The Bad Guys were the European Union, the sexual liberals, the would-be abolishers of the pound and the Bureaucrats.” He skewers them all.

July 25, 2005
Thought for the day

"The ethos we have in this country is that government leaves you alone unless it has good reason to suspect you of wrongdoing," said Jay Stanley of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

"Videotaping everything you do when you leave your apartment or house doesn't really qualify as leaving you alone."

July 23, 2005
Literary detectives

Fictionalized stories about writers seem to be all the rage. Now Julian Barnes has joined the fun—his latest novel, Arthur & George, is about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's real-life detective work in a now long forgotten case. It was released in Britain this month, but won't appear here in the U.S. until January. Barnes has collected reviews of the book on his website. (My review of Barnes' last book, a collection of short stories, can be found here.)

Barnes is interviewed by a friendly interlocutor at The Independent:

The quality in Arthur & George I liked the most - apart, of course, from Barnes's preternaturally smooth and readable prose - was the way it avoids condescension to the past, always going with the grain of the characters' beliefs. One aspect of this is Barnes's treatment of Conan Doyle's sex life, never bowing to the modern orthodoxy that regards Victorian morals as purely a matter of repression and hypocrisy. Another is his treatment of religion. Barnes himself says he has never had "even glimmerings" of belief, but he presents without irony George's devout Anglicanism and Conan Doyle's wackier spiritualist creed.

Thought for the day

"Wherever his face had been seen in whatever part of the globe, it would have been quite impossible to suppose Sinclo to be any nationality other than English. This was not merely because of his colouring and physiognomy, but because of the cast of his face, which combined melancholy and comedy in equal proportion."

—A.N. Wilson, My Name Is Legion

July 21, 2005
Sad but true dept.

"Though anthologies like this do poetry little harm, they can't do it much good when they'll soon be found on thrift-store shelves with forlorn inscriptions like 'Happy Birthday' and 'To the young graduate with love from Cousin Jake.'"

William Logan on Mark Strand's 100 Great Poems of the Twentieth Century

Thought for the day

“In fact he had reached a stage of his career where it was no longer possible for him to read: he only skimmed other people’s work, though his own articles were endlessly rereadable. His habit of rereading his own stuff was one reason for its tendency to self-parody.”

—A.N. Wilson, My Name Is Legion

July 17, 2005
Amazon's amateurs

My latest Brainwash column takes a look at Amazon.com's influence on the literary world, on the occasion of the online retailer's tenth anniversary.

Is this for real?

"Harry, who as an infant miraculously survived a Voldemort attack that killed his mother and father, is regarded as 'a symbol of hope' by many in the wizarding world, and as he learns more about the Dark Lord's obsession with his family, he realizes that he has a destiny he cannot escape. Like Luke Skywalker, he is eager to play the role of hero. But like Spider-Man, he is also aware of the burden that that role imposes: although he has developed romantic yearnings for a certain girl, he is wary of involvement, given his recognition of the dangers he will have to face."

—Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times

July 13, 2005
Thought for the day

"I introduced a fair amount of the 'learning' material the American reader requires, so he can feel he is not just enjoying himself, he's also improving himself."


July 12, 2005
Plum in print

The July 18, 2005, issue of The American Conservative contains my review of Robert McCrum's biography of P.G. Wodehouse and a look at some recent Wodehousian fiction, particularly Oscar-winning screenwriter Julian Fellowes' Snobs.

The Anglosphere is supposed to be the epitome of the egalitarian society. America, our schoolbooks tells us, was founded on the principle that everyone is born equal. The culturally omnipresent American Dream presupposes that anyone can rise from any class and do just about anything. Even the English have been steadily abolishing class; reform the House of Lords was one of Tony Blair's first pet projects.

So why is P.G. Wodehouse, a quintessentially Edwardian writer, so popular?

My piece isn't online, so you'll have to pick up a copy of the print edition to read the rest.

July 07, 2005
Thought for the day

London Pride has been handed down to us.
London Pride is a flower that's free.
London Pride means our own dear town to us,
And our pride it for ever will be.
Woa, Liza,
See the coster barrows,
Vegetable marrows
And the fruit piled high.
Woa, Liza,
Little London sparrows,
Covent Garden Market where the costers cry.
Cockney feet
Mark the beat of history.
Every street
Pins a memory down.
Nothing ever can quite replace
The grace of London Town.

There's a little city flower every spring unfailing
Growing in the crevices by some London railing,
Though it has a Latin name, in town and country-side
We in England call it London Pride.

London Pride has been handed down to us.
London Pride is a flower that's free.
London Pride means our own dear town to us,
And our pride it for ever will be.
Hey, lady,
When the day is dawning
See the policeman yawning
On his lonely beat.
Gay lady,
Mayfair in the morning,
Hear your footsteps echo in the empty street.
Early rain
And the pavement's glistening.
All Park Lane
In a shimmering gown.
Nothing ever could break or harm
The charm of London Town.

In our city darkened now, street and square and crescent,
We can feel our living past in our shadowed present,
Ghosts beside our starlit Thames
Who lived and loved and died
Keep throughout the ages London Pride.

London Pride has been handed down to us.
London Pride is a flower that's free.
London Pride means our own dear town to us,
And our pride it for ever will be.
Grey city
Stubbornly implanted,
Taken so for granted
For a thousand years.
Stay, city,
Smokily enchanted,
Cradle of our memories and hopes and fears.
Every Blitz
Your resistance
From the Ritz
To the Anchor and Crown,
Nothing ever could override
The pride of London Town.

—Noel Coward, "London Pride"

July 06, 2005
Rumpole's Guide to Life

My latest American Enterprise Online column is now online:

Advice books are a dime a dozen—in the bargain section, sometimes literally. There is no end to the number of writers who believe they know something about life that the rest of us don’t. But have we gotten any slimmer, smarter, or more satisfied as a result of all this publication?

Perhaps we’ve been listening to the wrong “experts.” Psychologists and doctors haven’t proven successful. But how about a novelist, screenwriter, playwright, memoirist, and former barrister?

John Mortimer’s Where There’s a Will: Thoughts on the Good Life isn’t the usual how-to book...

July 03, 2005
In print

The Washington Times has published in its Sunday book section another review of mine, this one of a book about "a momentous clash between the Enlightenment and the old ideals it sought to obliterate":

Ostensibly about the creation of one of Bach's masterpieces, "Evening in the Palace of Reason" is a biography of two larger than life figures and the rival values they represented.

The 300-plus-page book revolves around the single meeting, in 1747, between Bach and the Prussian King Frederick the Great. The result of this encounter was "A Musical Offering." Bach was 62, three years from death, Frederick only 35...

July 02, 2005
Thought for the day

"Canada only seems boring. It's actually an important country where some dramatic and rather sinister processes have played out in slow motion."

Steve Sailer

July 01, 2005
Happy Canada Day

"Canadians are the people who learned to live without the bold accents of the natural ego-trippers of other lands."

—Marshall McLuhan