May 28, 2006
Thought for the day

"If Martin had ever thought of becoming a writer and been tormented by a writer's covetousness (so akin to the fear of death), by that constant state of anxiety compelling one to fix indelibly this or that evanescent trifle, perhaps these dissertations on minutiae that were deeply familiar to him might have roused in him a pang of envy and desire to write of the same things still better."

--Vladimir Nabokov, Glory

Black Swan Green

My review of David Mitchell's new novel, Black Swan Green, is in today's Washington Times:

In any other hands, this roman a clef could have ended up a disaster; the subject matter is fraught with dangers for a writer. The geeky kid bullied by his more popular peers is something of a cliche. Margaret Thatcher is a rather polarizing figure in Britain, to say the least; it would be tempting to devolve the book into demagoguery. And learning about girls, writers' apprenticeships and divorce are all topics that have been explored many times before...

May 25, 2006
On Books

My latest American Enterprise column is now online:

The publishing industry is not known as a bastion of conservatism. Quite the contrary. But the overwhelmingly liberal trade managed to make time for conservatives during BookExpo America, the industry’s largest trade event, held in Washington, D.C., last weekend.

Amidst the schmoozing and promoting, the author breakfasts and book signings, BookExpo convened a panel entitled “Selling and Promoting Right of Center Books via Left of Center Channels."

May 23, 2006
Whom to believe?

"Americans love second acts."

--Arianna Huffington
"There are no second acts in American lives."
--F. Scott Fitzgerald

West Coast opera

New San Francisco Opera General Director David Gockley has scored one of his first major victories: The company has ratified a new contract with its orchestral players. The company agreed to restore pay cuts while the union agreed to longer working hours and the elimination of health benefits for retired musicians, long before the current contract expires in August. Gockley took over from the well-regarded Pamela Rosenberg at the beginning of the year.

I was in San Francisco this past season for the company's world premiere of John Adams' Doctor Atomic. I wrote about the opera for The Weekly Standard.

One of the San Francisco-based composer's previous operas, Nixon in China, is now playing in Chicago. There's a nice review of the Chicago Opera Theater production in the Chicago Tribune. John von Rhein writes:

If Adams' minimalist musical language has evolved in all sorts of maximal ways since "Nixon" was new, the score has held up beautifully. The brassy orchestra chugs, pulses, burbles and flickers like the actual home movies that burst across the multiple TV consoles of James Robinson's cleverly theatrical production, revived by Kevin Newbury. Atop the swaying syncopations and licks of big-band swing, ravishing vocal lines soar in ways Handel and Wagner never imagined, their ghosts hovering close by.
I'm actually going back to the West Coast for opera this weekend. The Los Angeles Opera is presenting the world premiere of Elliot Goldenthal's Grendel, in both modern and Old English. Directed by Goldenthal's wife Julie Taymor, maker of movies such as Titus, it should be an exciting production.

Kimchi madness

Here's something I didn't know--"Rates of gastric cancer among Koreans and Japanese are 10 times higher than in the United States." Researchers don't know exactly why. But as this Los Angeles Times article notes, heavy eaters of kimchi -- a spicy fermented vegetable dish usually made with cabbage -- have a 50% higher risk of stomach cancer.

But the food fascists in Korea don't want you to know that. From the L.A. Times piece: "'I'm sorry. I can't talk about the health risks of kimchi in the media. Kimchi is our national food,' said a researcher at Seoul National University, who begged not to be quoted by name."

Kimchi isn't all bad. There's a new kimchi that should keep astronauts from getting constipated in space. Anti-aging, anti-obesity, and anti-cancer kimchis are all on the way.

The Times article is a neat little piece of cultural reporting. These days, "[i]nstead of preserving kimchi by burying it in earthenware jars in the garden, many Koreans own specially designed refrigerators to keep it at ideal temperatures."

I do like kimchi myself, although I understand why so many people I know are turned off by its smell. My recommendation if you've never tried it? Raku here in Washington, DC, has a rather yummy kimchi sushi roll.

From Russia (via Holland) with love

Courtesy of the Globe and Mail, here's another interesting story out of Russia:

In a sobering development, forgers have been purchasing the works of minor European artists, altering them in a process known as "Russification," painting on the signature of major Russian artists, and selling them for many times their worth. Perhaps even more alarming is that they're fooling the most reputable auction houses in the world.
In a way, you have to admire the entrepreneurship in the former Communist nation:
Experts first caught on to the scam during a Russian art sale at Sotheby's in May, 2004. The famous London auction house was featuring a piece attributed to 19th-century painter Ivan Shishkin called Landscape With Brook.

The work was estimated at $1.28-million (U.S.) and came with a certificate of authenticity.

However, the painting was not by Shishkin -- or any other Russian painter for that matter. It was the work of Dutch artist Marinus Koekkoek, sold a year earlier by the Bukowski auction house in Stockholm for between $55,000 and $60,000. By the time the painting reached Sotheby's, four human figures and a lamb had been removed, and Shishkin's signature was added.

Torch with an edge

My review of Anjani Thomas' new album, Blue Alert, is in today's Washington Times:

Few albums feature the name of their producer prominently on the cover. But then, few artists have the chance to collaborate with a musical legend on their major-label debuts.

Anjani Thomas is one of the lucky few. The cover for her "Blue Alert" has the words "Produced by Leonard Cohen" a full half-size as large as the album's title. Her label's marketing team might be forgiven for this bit of crassness, however; without the draw of the celebrated Canadian singer-songwriter, much of her potential audience might never discover her considerable charms.

Anjani, as she bills herself, also happens to be Leonard Cohen's girlfriend. But one can't put down the existence of this record solely to nepotism...

May 22, 2006

The Russians certainly understand what's important in life. From a May 19 Christian Science Monitor story:

"Experts foretell the grim prospect of a Russia that can no longer man its factories, field a decent hockey team, or defend its borders."

Thought for the day

"I feel that the enormous luck I've had in being able to make a living, and to never have had to have written one word that I didn't want to write, to be able to have satisfied that dictum I set for myself, which was not to work for pay, but to be paid for my work—just to be able to satisfy those standards that I set for myself has been an enormous privilege."

--Leonard Cohen

Happy Birthday

"Life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent."

--Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, "A Case of Identity"

May 17, 2006
Thought for the day

"Poetry is compacted language and when the reader unpacks it, a kind of inner explosion results."

--Michael Dirda

May 15, 2006
Thought for the day

"Passionate sinning has not infrequently been an apprenticeship to sainthood."

--Eric Hoffer

Risque Rossini

My review of the last production of the WNO's 50th anniversary season is in today's Washington Times:

The Washington National Opera's production of Rossini's "L'Italiana in Algeri" is bawdy, farcical and over the top. And Saturday's opening night audience at the Kennedy Center Opera House ate it up...

May 13, 2006
The more things change...

The fatwa against Salman Rushdie may seem to have been relaxed. Rushdie's been out of hiding for years now, after all. But perhaps more worrisome is that there are Americans who seem to agree that writers who say things they don't like should be silenced.

In a piece on this year's commencement addresses across the country, the Washington Post notes:

At Florida's Nova Southeastern University, novelist Salman Rushdie's speech Sunday caused a commotion. Islamic students boycotted the ceremonies and protested because of Rushdie's novel "The Satanic Verses," whose publication in 1988 led Iran to issue a death edict against him.

Thought for the day

"Political history is far too criminal and pathological to be a fit subject of study for the young. Children should acquire their heroes and villains from fiction."

--W.H. Auden

May 11, 2006
Thought for the day

"To write fairy stories for children, to amuse them, to divert restless children, sick children, to keep them out of mischief on rainy days, seems of greater importance than to write grown-up novels."

--L. Frank Baum

On Books, Lots of Books

My latest American Enterprise column is now online. I review Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda's latest volume, Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life:

What is art for? What, for example, do we—or should we—get out of reading great literature? Anyone who has done even the smallest amount of reading on the subject knows what a can of worms these questions open. They’ve been debated for centuries, to no consensus. Every great thinker has his own answers. Some, like the great composer J.S. Bach, thought art should be made for the glory of God. Others, such as many early Americans (and Bill Bennett in our own time), believed art had a moral purpose—that the right art could make us better human beings. Others champion, in critic Walter Pater’s slogan, “art for art’s sake.”

Michael Dirda is, in some ways, a follower of Pater. Many critics are, of course. Michael Dirda is one of our best, a national treasure for those of us who care about the printed word...

May 10, 2006
Thought for the day

"What keeps lovers and mistresses from tiring of being together is that they talk of nothing but themselves."

--La Rochefoucauld

May 09, 2006
Thought for the day

"But courage and creativity are linked, for all serious creation requires intellectual courage. It is frightening to enter your workroom early in the morning and face an empty canvas, a blank sheet of paper, or a score sheet, know that you must inscribe the marks of a complete original work. The fact that you have done it before helps, if only in the sense that you know you can do it. But this never quite removes the fear. Indeed, creative courage, like physical courage in battle, comes in a limited quantity--a form of personal capital, which diminishes with repeated demands on it, and may even disappear completely."

--Paul Johnson, Creators

May 07, 2006
Thought for the day

"'My dear man,' said the Chief Constable, rather irritably, 'if you had committed a murder and were trying to get away with it, you wouldn't let a trifle like a second breakfast stand in your way.'"

--Dorothy L. Sayers, The Five Red Herrings

Back to life

I was on vacation for over a week. I seized--although that implies less passivity than was actually involved--the opportunity to take a break from news of all types: political, literary, what have you. I was in a rather sunny place, with some sunny friends, that made it quite easy. But it's always rather difficult to make the switch back to normal life, isn't it?

So I didn't have a chance to post my last American Enterprise books column. It's a review of Paul Johnson's interesting--and sometimes infuriating--new book, Creators:

He posits that women like Jane Austen, George Eliot, and George Sand became creators because they were plain. Had they been beautiful and attracted the notice of good matches, they likely would never have written the novels for which they are justly famous.

Here, in particular, Johnson sometimes reverts to the nastiness of Intellectuals. Of George Sand’s famous lovers, including poet and painter Alfred de Musset and composer Frederic Chopin, he writes, "They saw something in her. But what?" Perhaps the fine mind that wrote such striking novels as Lavinia and Mauprat. But rather than discuss her groundbreaking work, Johnson spends his time mostly on her "gross" figure, repeating Flaubert’s famous comment on her bottom. George Sand may have been plain, but it didn’t keep her from passionate liaisons with some of Europe’s most interesting men. Her affairs became the fuel of her important work...

May 06, 2006
Thought for the day

"Most problems could be diminished by the drinking of tea and the thinking through of things."

--Mma Ramotswe via Alexander McCall Smith