Forestry Note:
24 July 2018

¶ Sitting out on the balcony during a downpour, as I like to do so long as the rain doesn’t blow in on me, I wondered how long it would take to clear away the tree that fell down about a moment after I stepped outside, just before the storm.

“The tree fell down” — that doesn’t seem right. The tree tore apart, like a great deal of paper ripping. I had heard the sound often enough at our lake house in Connecticut, but never in town. Like thunder, it is violent but unhurried, and it doesn’t come to an end until a few moments after the noise stops, when you realize that there isn’t going to be any more. 

Peering up 87th Street toward Second Avenue, I couldn’t quite see the tree, but I could tell that there were branches of leaves on the street. A few cars quietly approached, and just as quietly backed up. Astonishingly, I never heard a single horn. Given that the building’s garage, its portal directly below our balcony, operates a car-rental service, with a lot of Sunday-night traffic, I foresaw a crisis. There’s an entrance on 86th Street, but it is narrow and seldom used these days. For the sake of all the unsuspecting renters, driving back from their weekends away, I hoped that the situation would be cleared up quickly. But by whom? 

After about twenty minutes, I heard a buzz saw. Thanks to a brief blurt of sirens, I supposed it to belong to the Fire Department, which had presumably also blocked off the street at First Avenue. Within the hour, the job was done. I was impressed.

Pomiane Note:
Very Quick Chicken Salad
23 July 2018

¶ On hand: an imperatively perfect avocado (eat it now!). Also a bit of chicken breast, simmered in savory stock and then cooled.

Not at all in the mood for: mayonnaise. So I tossed the cubed avocado and chicken in a light oil and the juice of half a lemon; and then I wondered, is this all there is?

No! What about the guacamole, Fairway’s Extra Chunky, that Kathleen and I dipped into on Friday? There was just enough left, after I scraped away all the exposed-to-air brown bits at the top of the tub, to stir into the salad. 


It was the sort of thing that, in my declining years, I wish happened more often. 

Video Note:
Up at Cortina
20 July 2018

¶ We watched The Pink Panther — the first of Blake Edwards’s series of Eurotrash comedies. “Eurotrash” wasn’t the word back in 1963, but it seems to fit. How else to describe that noisy, aniline costume ball at the end? Claudia Cardinale maintains a certain prim dignity throughout, but she remains, after all, Claudia Cardinale, no diamond in the rough but simply a cabochon Tunisian adventuress. Poor Brenda de Banzie gamely impersonates a shrill party planner, not her sort at all, and for her pains generates the very discomfort more naturally aroused by Claire Trevor two years later in How to Murder Your Wife.

The real question is this, though: David Niven? David Niven was a leading man in 1963, despite being only ten years younger than the century. It was a convincing act at the time — it never seemed odd to me — but now he looks like a character actor pushed into the spotlight. Whereas Robert Wagner, who ought to have been the romantic lead, looks too young — soft, really. Perhaps it is the essence of this knockdown café-society milieu that nobody can be reliably clever and unscrupulously rich — fully attractive — before the age of forty.

The marriage enacted by Peter Sellers and Capucine is nothing more than farce curdled into sitcom.

Did I say that we watched it? Kathleen read mostly, then shopped for things at eBay. The Pink Panther was just as brainless as it was the first time. 

Pantry Note:
The State of Bread
19 July 2018

For a week now, a loaf of Matthew’s Golden White bread has reposed on the dining table. After a big shop at Fairway, I unpacked all the bags at the table, and almost everything got put away — everything but the bread. There is nowhere to put a loaf of bread in the kitchen. Well, another loaf. There’s plenty of bread, of different kinds, here and there. There are English muffins, of course. Some top-sliced Frankfurter buns that have gotten a bit rocky. A loaf of Bread Alone’s Peasant bread. Levy’s Seeded Rye, somewhere, I think. But none of my own. It’s a sign of my poor spirits that I haven’t baked bread in months. 

Time to rethink the kitchen cabinets. 

One of the great things about my kitchen in the country was open shelving. Plenty of it, and no doors. Everything was immediately visible. (It helped that the shelves weren’t too deep.) Most people seem to think that cabinet doors keep the contents clean, or at least free of dust and grime. I think that it just makes them mysterious, or at least easy to ignore. 

The impossible ideal: a kitchen that stocked everything in the way of ingredients and equipment needed to make just about anything — but that still looked empty. 

Reading Note:
Beyond the Pale
18 July 2018

For a long time, I didn’t read fiction in The New Yorker. I felt I had to give it up, because the magazine doesn’t tell you, “This story is an excerpt from the author’s forthcoming novel.” I don’t like serials and installments. I want the whole thing all at once, and I’m willing to wait until it’s all available. 

But I’ve been reading Joseph O’Neill’s stories, two of them I think, and now I’m waiting for his new collection to arrive. This week, there’s a story by Zadie Smith, “Now More Than Ever.” Mostly because I couldn’t think what to do next, after finishing a particularly vacant edition of the Times, I gave it a try. 

Is this the place to say something about my opinion of Zadie Smith? How I love her essays, her fiction not so much? Maybe that’s enough.

“Now More Than Ever” is, appropriately for a story about academia, both ridiculous and horrifying. It is narrated by a professor, presumably at NYU, where faculty members have taken to holding gigantic black arrow signs out of their living-room windows and aiming them at the apartments of colleagues — it’s interesting that arrows and doghouses have similar silhouettes, although Smith doesn’t make this point, and it is not true of the doghouse in Caleb Crain’s story, “Mr Hutchinson,” in the new Harper’s (August 2018). Why point fingers when gigantic black arrows are so much more shaming — not to mention semiotic. (Bear in mind the peculiarity of NYU: it’s the faculty, not the student body, that lives on campus, in adjacent towers. Student housing is strewn across the Village, in perhaps unconscious imitation of the medieval Latin Quarter.) The professor notes that a few arrows are being pointed at her apartment, but at first she shrugs this off.

Does it make any sense to speak of “at first” in connection with this tale? Maybe not. The moral of the story seems to be “the past is now also the present.” The professor learns this — it’s the latest thing, apparently — from a young friend called Scout.

Scout is so involved and active. She is on all platforms, and rarely becomes aware of anything much later than, say, the three-hundredth person. By way of comparison, the earliest I’ve ever been aware of anything was that time I was the ten-million-two-hundred-and-sixth person to see that thing. 

For all its tone of ludicrous, jokey exaggeration, this “comparison” does not strike me as partaking in any way of science fiction, which is why I say yet again unto you, turn it off. Anyway, what the moral of the story means is that your life has to be seamless. There can be no “out of step” problem between who you are now and who you were then. I am not trying too hard to be lucid here; on the contrary, I’m reaching for the para-lucidity of Smith’s laid-back jargon. (What is poké, by the way? Oh, that. Forgot. Wouldn’t be caught dead &c.) The terms of your past must make sense in those of your present. This sounds to me like saying that there can be no growth and no forgiveness, two very bad ideas that I have no trouble associating with the tenured, professional distortion of the humanities. 

There are three episodes in the story, narratives that don’t occur entirely in the professor’s here-and-now. I suppose they constitute evidence pointing to some conclusion, but, as usual, they feel like black arrows aimed at my lack of hermeneutic penetration. The first involves a much-admired businesswoman whose kinky, “problematic” antics with a former boyfriend may bring about her disgrace. The third involves the professor’s correspondence with a high-school student in South Bend in which Donald Trump is conspicuously not named. In between, there’s an extended account of the 1951 film, A Place in the Sun, which the professor and Scout go to see at the Film Forum. What’s it doing here?

A couple of things. (I almost said “coupla.”) It counterposes a quiet maelstrom of moral complication to Scout’s Jacobin rectitude. To no effect: Scout concludes, much to the professor’s chagrin — for she is by now clearly an ageing figure with more past than she can reconcile with the present, no longer able to keep up with all platforms, and almost certain to bear out Scout’s prediction that she will find herself “beyond the pale” — that to feel any sympathy for Montgomery Clift’s character is tantamount to “flippancy and misjudging the current climate.” No, I’ve got that wrong. Flippant misjudgment belongs to the first episode. Sympathy for the guy in A Place in the Sun is “two-faced.” The movie also occasions the professor’s reflections on lynching, which, although extremely tangential (and not really warranted in any way by the presence of a black housemaid in Elizabeth Taylor’s character’s beach house) provide the one nugget of moral value on view in this capriccio on fashionable braininess: 

… although with the mental proviso that suffering has no purpose in reality. To the suffering person suffering is solely suffering. It is only for others, as a symbol, that suffering takes on any meaning or purpose. No one ever got lynched and thought, Well, at least this will lead inexorably to the civil-rights movement. They just shook, suffered, screamed, and died. Pain is the least symbolic thing there is.  

You have to hand it to Trump. His past and his present are seamless. I wish that Zadie Smith could have worked that in somehow. Then “More Now Than Ever” would be perfect. But it’s plenty fun as it is.  

HVAC Note:
Knocks at Midnight
17 July 2018

Almost at the end of the afternoon, the doorbell rang. It was, as I expected, the super. “I almost forgot about you,” he said, waving a penlight.

Happily, his next words were, “There’s no complaint, I think the leaking stopped.” Then he went into the bedroom to confirm this. His visit lasted less than three minutes.

Last night was another story. We were watching a video; it was somewhere between ten-thirty and eleven. There was a knock at the door. The knocker was a bald man wearing a T-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops. I presently recognized him as the building superintendent, and began to spiral into anxiety.

The air-conditioner in our bedroom, it seemed, was leaking. And not just leaking, but leaking onto the bed of the tenant on the third floor. I saw at once that we faced the prospect of trying to sleep through a very hot night with nothing but the fan to cool us. And that was just the immediate prospect. 

The super removed the facing panel from the HVAC unit. After that, it was all surprises. He seemed to know what he was doing, but I certainly didn’t. I fetched him jugs of water, which he emptied into various places. I brought him paper towels, to wipe off a slimy grille (if that’s what it was; all I saw was the slime, surprisingly venerable-looking in a unit that was new when we moved in a few years ago). He lugged up a vacuum cleaner and applied its hose to several areas. He never said “Aha!” or anything else to signify that he had discovered the cause of the leak, much less dealt with it. But he seemed to conclude that the leaking had stopped. He would come back in the morning to make sure.

Just when I’d thought there must be no problem, he showed up to tell me that there was no problem. All morning I’d worried, for nothing.

Don’t get me wrong, but the super comes from a part of the world where midnight knocks used to be part of everyday life. He was apologetic about the disturbance, assuring us that there was no way to know about the leak, and he thanked us for letting him in. But I needed a pill and an extra nightcap. 

Rep Note:
Lemonade 124
16 July 2018

Once again, a cold spring caused me to forget about lemonade until well into warmer weather. I’ve only just begun to make it again.

Happily, I have reduced the formula to a memorable number, 124. It yields a very strong and tart lemonade, which is how Kathleen likes it.

To one part of simple syrup, add two parts of lemon juice and four parts of water. Shake well and chill. (To make simple syrup, boil equal parts of water and sugar just until the sugar dissolves, and allow the syrup to cool.)

In practice, I make half batches. This means boiling a half-cup of simple syrup, adding a cup of lemon juice and two cups of water. If I pick my lemons well — you want them to give just a little when you squeeze them in the produce department — four lemons yield a cup of juice.

Dandy Note:
Reyn Spooner
13 July 2018

When our old friend Alison visited us in March, she mentioned the shirts turned out by Reyn Spooner in Hawai’i. She claimed that businessmen and professionals consider these shirts to be perfectly appropriate office attire. Curious, I looked them up after dinner, and discovered that they are indeed superior in every way to the common “Hawaiian shirt.” Although bold and colorful, they are as natty as the Madras shirts that I’ve been wearing for years.

Still, I have invested in the big, bold look before, and it has not worked for me. I decided to give Reyn Spooner a pass.

But Reyn Spooner did not give me a pass. Once I’d Googled them, I was confronted by their ads at almost every other Web site, which got to be particularly annoying at The New Yorker, where the ads, displaying rows and rows of intriguing patterns, distracted me from reading. 

Inevitably, I bought one: the Diamond Head pattern. When it arrived, it looked even better than advertised; so, inevitably, I’ve bought another one: the 50th State Flower, in crimson and yellow.

If you want to check these things out, do so in an incognito window.

Oh, and yes, of course, George Clooney wears one in The Descendants. That print is no longer available. 

Progress Note:
Tennison’s Challenge
12 July 2018

We’ve been watching the original British productions of Prime Suspect, the series in which Helen Mirren plays a police detective, Jane Tennison. Although loaded with conventional excitement, the series was notable for dramatising a smart woman’s struggle to command a squad of more or less sexist men — men who, at the very least, are unfamiliar with women who give orders. 

Twenty years on and more, it’s still all of that, but much more bitter, because it brings home how little has changed.

The fourth episode of Prime Suspect actually comprises three entirely separate cases. At the end of the third, we find Tennison, newly re-instated after an insubordination-inspired suspension — needless to say, her insubordination was provoked by her colleagues’ disinclination to respect her achievements — dancing with a mortal enemy, Superintendant David Thordike. Chief Superintendant Mike Kernan has just expressed his happiness at seeing the two foes making nice. Thorndike returns to his table saying, “No hard feelings, certainly not on my part.” The sniggering of the other officers at his table betray the double entendre of this remark — no stiffy — whereupon Tennison sprays them all with her drink. 

We didn’t say to ourselves, “How long ago that sort of thing seems.”

Library Note:
Broken Back
11 July 2018

As resolved (at the other blog), I took Jane Jacobs’s Cities and the Wealth of Nations down from the shelf and have been re-reading it. It’s better, more inciting, then ever. But perhaps, in being gripped by Jacobs’s “principles of economic life,” I grip the book too hard. More likely, it’s age. Whatever the cause, the book just split in two in my hands. 

I kept on with the reading, but I’m sure that pages are going to start falling out, so I’ve ordered a new copy.

Something similar happened with Frances Fitzgerald’s Fire in the Lake, when I re-read that a few years ago. The binding held, but the pages slipped away from the spine like so many autumn leaves. The thing is, I couldn’t bring myself to throw the book away, even after I replaced it. There’s something about the intense imperial yellow of the original that I can’t live without. 

But I don’t feel the same attachment to my old copy of Jacobs’s book, which was published in 1984. Why isn’t there a price on the back of the book? Although a Random House ISBN is given on the copyright page, I strongly suspect that the book was printed by QPBC — the late, once-great Quality Paperback Book Club. 

Medical Note:
10 July 2018

The umpteenth Remicade infusion yesterday went well, as these infusions almost invariably do. I read a few chapters of Steven Brill’s Tailspin

But I had to see the rheumatologist first, just like the old days. In the old days, his inspections were pro-forma. Those have long since been supplanted by quarterly visits. I had to see him yesterday so that he could see me, or, more particularly, the cuts on my shin. He peeled back the bandages and pronounced them “nothing.” I was good to go.

I could have gotten away without telling him about the cuts, but that would have meant not telling him about the antibiotics that the dermatologist prescribed when I called her office to describe them. Four years ago, a deeper but otherwise similar gouge in exactly the same spot on my other shin abscessed, sending me to the Emergency Room for a few days of intravenous antibiotics.  Cellulitis had bloated the limb, which was hot to the touch. I didn’t’ want to repeat that experience. Nor, with regard to the infusion, did I want to discover that Remicade was contraindicated by the facts — after it was too late. 

I walk into things all the time, because there is never enough room. Four years ago, it was the sharp corner of a wooden bed on Fire Island. This time, it was the stout plastic packaging on a case of box wine that I was too lazy to unpack. It took up half the floor space in the already narrow passage that leads from the kitchen to the dining ell. I cut myself at least three times. Kathleen, cleaning and bandaging the wounds, called them “craters.” 

When the rheumatologist heard about this (because I ‘fessed up when the Infusion Therapy Unit nurse called to confirm the infusion), he asked me to send him a photograph. Kathleen took a few shots, and they all made me look ready to succumb to a virulent tropical disease. Word got back, no surprise, that the doctor wanted to see for himself. Instead of ordering the infusion to be rescheduled, though, he fit me in very nicely, so that I saw him on my way to the Unit. It was very convenient for me, I must say. Virtue was not its own reward. 

Four years ago, the next Remicade infusion had to be put off not for a few days but for weeks.  

Rep Note:
Indian Melon Salad
9 July 2018

The decision to take last week off was made on Wednesday, Independence Day, right in the middle of taking it off. Hope nobody worried. 

For years, the default chicken salad served in this household was made following a venerable recipe that, to my mind, epitomized Midwestern sophistication. It was given to Kathleen was given by the Irish lady who took care of a very large family in Winnetka; Kathleen’s roommate all through Smith was the second of nine children. The lady’s name, too, was Kathleen, but that’s not what her charges called her, nor what we call the chicken salad in her honor. The children’s nickname for “Kathleen” was utterly innocent and even charming, but out of context it is off-putting. 

A few years ago, I stopped making this salad, and searched out alternatives, especially ones involving avocados. Some were very good, but none displaced the default, which I made for the first time in an age over this past weekend. The following quantities will feed four moderately hungry people. 

1 cup mayonnaise
1/2 teaspoon curry powder
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon soy sauce
Salt and pepper to taste — but go easy on the salt, given the soy sauce. 

2 cups cubed cooked chicken
3 ounces sliced water chestnuts
1/2 pound green grapes, halved
1/2 cup minced celery

Butter lettuce leaves
Melon balls

Prepare the dressing about an hour ahead of serving, and toss the chicken, the water chestnuts, and the celery in it. Cover and keep cool. Finish the salad at serving time. 

I am not sure that I would miss the water chestnuts, but Kathleen claims to be fond of them, and they do provide a nice crunch. 

June 2018

Rep Note:
Ham Steak
29 June 2018

For a long time, I’ve turned up my nose at supermarket ham steaks, the thin and somewhat watery slices of ham, many without bone, that have been around for as long as I can remember. For a long time, I had a store of superior ham steaks in the freezer, cut from whole hams at Christmas and Easter by the butcher. But the butcher has closed his shop, and I ought to have noticed much sooner than I did that ham simply doesn’t freeze well — just as it says in The Joy of Cooking

The other day, then, I thought: new times. And when I came to cook it, I brought a bit of water, some honey, and a splash of bourbon to the boil. I ought to have reduced this mixture to a syrup before sliding in the ham steak, in which case the meat would not have been toughened by overcooking. But the ham was tasty, and no mustard was involved. It couldn’t have been simpler, really.

I served it with a riced sweet potato, into which I stirred nothing but salted butter. A very nice little dinner. 

Tech Note:
On Peak Screen
28 June 2018

Time was, I didn’t know anyone else who owned a personal computer. Now I feel like the only person who doesn’t use a smartphone.

Of course I own a smartphone. I rely on it for phone calls. I do a little texting, mostly with the drugstore. I have found the calendar app to be unreliable. 

I don’t play games, anywhere, and I don’t use the Internet on the smartphone, except maybe to find out where something is.

There is no discipline at work here. What there is, is a strong preference — more than that, really — for conducting my digital life at my desk, with its nice big keyboard and three screens. I was too set in my ways, when the smartphone came along, to change. 

So when I read the following, I feel both lucky and superannuated. 

“What you get sucked into is not the one thing that caught your attention — your text message or tweet or whatever,” said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at the technology research firm Creative Strategies. Instead, you unlock your phone and instantly, almost unconsciously, descend into the irresistible splendors of the digital world — emerging 30 minutes later, stupefied and dazed. 

I also feel like an immigrant who just got off the boat. The impulse to re-board the boat and sail back to a more familiar clime is strong, but it only reminds me that any sailing in my future is going to be in the other direction. 

Gotham Diary:
At Age Twenty
27 June 2018

John Lanchester has a terrific piece in the current issue of the LRB, “After the Fall,” in which he appraises the aftermath of the Crash of 2008. I read it online (thanks to The Browser), but I still haven’t received the issue in print. Which may be why the thing that really sticks in my mind is this: 

Napoleon said something interesting: that to understand a person, you must understand what the world looked like when he was twenty. 

I don’t know which is more interesting, the remark itself or the fact that Napoleon is credited with it. Maybe godfathers and gangsters have a livelier respect for history than the rest of us.

When I was twenty, the world seemed to be dominated by an overconfident economic empire. Since everything was happening much faster than ever before, the obvious analogy to Rome at its height did not mean that we had centuries to play with.

Which I suppose supports (if it can’t prove) Napoleon’s point.

Grocery Note:
26 June 2018

I hate Fairway. Especially when I’m not there. Once I’m there, I sink into the madness of trying to avoid collisions with other shopping carts while remembering what’s available on which floor. (The store’s decision to superimpose one section of perishables — produce — directly over the other — meat and fish — is deeply wrong, even if, given the layout of the square footage, it was probably unavoidable.) I follow my route, almost habitual now, and hope that what I’m looking for will be on the shelves. I endure checkout, which is not so bad really — because I’m used to it.

Once I get through the bottleneck between the organic vegetables and the stairwell, I notice how disagreeable everyone is in this unpleasant atmosphere, which is that of a parking garage. I wonder if I’ll get stuck on the elevator, although this has not yet happened. I ask a staffer where they’ve put the fresh herbs this time. I navigate the stocking-cart-clogged aisles, and consider how best to deal with the young men who, quite understandably, pretend that customers aren’t there. I listen to kiddies in meltdown. I push on and, eventually, make my escape. 

It’s when I get home that the irritation burns: I never want to go there again. 

Reading Note:
25 June 2018

On Thursday, 26 June 1902, the coronation of Edward VII did not take place. The new king (no longer a young man) was recovering from appendectomy surgery conducted two days before. The ceremony was performed six weeks later, on 9 August. By then, César Ritz, proprietor of the Carlton Hotel in St James, with its plenitude of fully-booked rooms overlooking the route of the coronation procession, was in Switzerland, prostrated by the typhoon of cancellations that flattened what ought to have been the summit of his spectacular career. Lingering on until 1918, he never really recovered. Ironically, no one had furthered Ritz’s career more emphatically than the former Prince of Wales.

Luke Barr’s Ritz & Escoffier: The Hotelier, the Chef & the Rise of the Middle Class, which draws toward its close with this catastrophe, is nevertheless a great treat. I gobbled it down in a day. Barr has omitted from his title a third name, that of the D’Oyly Cartes, Richard and Helen, with whom I hope you are familiar thanks to your thorough familiarity with Gilbert & Sullivan. Richard D’Oyly Carte was a showman, and Helen was his manager. He had the big ideas; she tempered them with pragmatism. There’s something brash and American about D’Oyly Carte; his passion for embedding luxury with newfangled technology (elevators, electric lights, en suite bathrooms) was not exactly staid.

Having built the Savoy Theatre for Gilbert and Sullivan, he spent the later Eighties erecting and opening the adjacent Savoy Hotel. Beautifully sited on the bend in the Thames where John of Gaunt built the eponymous palace, the hotel had great views, from St Paul’s to Parliament, and of course the wide river right in front, a more interesting variety of deer park. Among other things, Oscar Wild and Lord Alfred Douglas would do a great deal of carrying-on at the Savoy, running up tremendous bills and making witnesses of the menials whose evidence would be used against the playwright in the criminal prosecution that followed his ill-advised action for libel. Somehow far more gripping are the accounts of grand dinners, for which Barr includes the extravagant menus.

There was the infamous dinner — £15 a head — for a group of City merchants, some of them Jewish furriers, and there was the unprecedented ladies-only dinner, conducted by semi-discreet screens. There were the concurrent feasts for the Prince of Wales (in the grand private dining room) and the Duc d’Orléans (in the fabulously overhauled basement billiard room). At the heart of all this food was Auguste Escoffier. Escoffier and Ritz had known each other for years by the time D’Oyly Carte came begging Ritz to manage his new hotel. Neither Ritz nor Escoffier was drawn to the idea of life in London, although Escoffier would soon become quite attached to the town, where he immediately became a superstar. They turned D’Oyly Carte down, and watched the hotel slip from its very successful opening to red-alert six months later. The three men thereupon came to a deal that promised to give everyone what he wanted. For the two foreigners, this meant the freedom to pursue independent ventures and to spend months at a time back on the Continent. Unfortunately, Helen D’Oyly was not enthusiastic about the arrangement; she correctly foresaw that all that freedom would lead to making free. Ritz hardly endeared himself to her when he began his superintendancy by removing acres of upholstery and tons of mahogany that had been carefully chosen by Helen to decorate the public rooms. She also disapproved, constitutionally, of Ritz’s ethos, shared by Escoffier: to make a lot of money, you have to spend a lot of money. Helen could not overlook the fact that Ritz was spending her money. 

It was great while it lasted; happily for Ritz and Escoffier, when it ended, they could fall back on their new venture, the Hotel Ritz in the Place Vendôme, Paris. In 1899, the duo returned to London to open the Carlton. This time, they did not have to account to a resentful, beady-eyed accountant. They spent money and they made a fortune. In the process, Escoffier reformed grand cuisine, by stabilizing the recipes and lightening the portions, and by overhauling the method in which dishes were prepared.

Ritz & Escoffier tells the story of a transformation. Royal palaces, which had been obliged to become more discreet and less spendthrift throughout the Nineteenth Century, spun off the sybaritic aspect of courtly life to new public palaces, open to any suitably-dressed visitor with a wallet to match. It would be an overstatement to suggest that the great people rubbed shoulders with the commoners in the brightly-lighted, lavish salons and restaurants, but they did at least share the same rooms, if not at the same time. At the dinner for the Duc d’Orléans, honoring the wedding of his sister to a royal Italian prince, the Princess of Wales, who had parted from her husband in the lobby of the Savoy (he had his own do upstairs, remember), signed the menu, “Alix,” for Ritz, and so did everyone else at the head table. It was not the sort of thing that would ever happen at Marlborough House.

The book is all the more fun because nobody wants to eat like that anymore. Let them eat ortolans!


Reading Note:
The Photograph
22 June 2018

Penelope Lively’s The Photograph was a widely-read book, as I recall. I held this against it, at the time. I read it only much later, after my taste matured and I no longer read scorn into dry English prose. Now I’ve just read the novel a second time. 

It was like driving along a country road for the second time. Things that I had completely forgotten when I began would come to mind only a few pages before they appeared. There’s going to be a bit about a painter, and then a rich man who owns one of the artist’s works. I was never quite sure of these developments, but then the road would twist and there they were. I knew that the woman at the center of the story, already dead at the beginning, would be shown to have taken her own life, but I didn’t recall how, only that it was in bed. Somewhere in the middle, I remembered that the potter knew everything. 

Kath, the suicide, was a beautiful woman, and that is her doom. Nobody loved her, because nobody thought of her as a human being. The one man who knew that she was human never gave loving her more than a passing thought: he was not in her class. The men who surrounded her regarded her as a divine trophy. She finally married one of them because she thought he loved her, but she discovered that, having captured her, he stopped paying serious attention and went back to work, as a member of that special English class, the telegenic academic.)

Kath was partly to blame, perhaps chiefly to blame. She fell back on her loveliness instead of learning a trade. But she was thwarted by her beautiful body of the one thing that might have saved her. Nobody guessed what it was, so she had to tell her closest friend, the potter. The eponymous photograph, which comes to light after her death, propels her survivors to give her life the consideration that they denied it when she was breathing. As they do so, the goddess becomes a mortal. Lively builds to the metamorphosis with a complete but subtle mastery of suspense. Recollections of Kath looking ethereal imperceptibly yield to recollections of Kath looking lost. Long before the revelatory chapter, we know that Kath is, or rather was, not to be envied. 

There’s no mystery about the novel’s popularity.

Tracking Note:
Getting There is No Fun At All
21 June 2018

Kathleen and I exchanged a few texts during her ride out to JFK. Traffic was terrible; she was glad she’d left early; her phone’s power was down to 18%. Then and there I began to worry: my power levels never drop anywhere near 50%. I naturally but stupidly thought that Kathleen would text me from the Admiral’s Club, to let me know that she was recharging. But she didn’t, nor did she look at (or listen to) her phone. I didn’t hear from her until hours later, when she boarded the plane. I wished her a safe flight. 

Flights themselves used to bother me: radio silence. Not any more, of course; now you can track them. Once the plane is said to have landed, though, I want to hear from Kathleen pronto. 

She did not let me down, not then. It was at the next step that she flubbed. “I’ll text from the cab,” she had said when she landed. But she didn’t. She texted when she got to her room, in Carlsbad, not exactly a few blocks from San Diego airport. “Oh,” she said, before we said good night on the phone. By now, it was three in the morning where I was. 

This is how great boulders are worn down to grains of sand.