Vacation Reading #1 – Baudolino

I took Umberto Eco’s Baudolino to Seattle. The plot is like Woody Allen’s Zelig set in 12/13th century Italy and Constantinople. An Italian peasant boy with a gift for languages and colorful lies becomes the protege of Frederick Babarossa, and is the behind-the-scenes creator of grail legends, the canonization of Charlemagne, counterfeit relics, and the mysterious letter from the mythical Prester John, king of a fantastic Eastern Kingdom, promising political support for the Byzantine emperor.
What I liked: lively depiction of the historical period; the beauty and decadence of Constantinople (complete with detailed descriptions of Byzantine recipes, catacombs, and scupltures); the ribald life of Paris students; the crazily shifting politics of 12th c. Italy.
Where I lost patience:
* medieval disputation. The characters engage in long philosophical debates on the existence of a vacuum, the dimensions of Solomon’s temple, the shape of the earth, with creative logic and little evidence. Eco creates a set of characters with convincingly medieval concerns which lose the attention of this modern reader.
* kingdom of Prester John. The last third of the narrative tells the story of a pilgrimage beyond the River Sambatyon to the domain of Prester John, inhabited by unicorns, satyrs, giants, and a variety of other medieval monsters. At this point, the story veers off into allegory, shifting the balance between narrative and idea far enough (for me) to lose the human interest.
Not sure about: a theme of the novel is the relationship between history and fiction, truth and lies. I need to reflect more about the book to decide what I think about Eco’s treatment of the theme.

Vacation Reading #2 – Samurai Boogie

Hard-boiled detective novel set in contemporary depression Japan, by a British expat. Great atmospheric detail of Tokyo streets and lower-middle-class Japanese life. The theme of surface propriety and underlying corruption adapts wonderfully to a Japanese setting. The gender stereotypes of the genre — clueless bourgeoises, canny whores — fit better with Japanese society than with contemporary US.
My favorite aspect of the book: how Mori the detective draws hidden information by using creative disguises and playing on people’s instinctive respect and fear of authority.
Have you read the book? Have you read the book and lived in Japan? What did you think?

Weekend Reading #3: The Nanny Diaries

The Nanny Diaries (you may have read it; I’m probably the last on the planet who hasn’t) is written by two ex-nannies to the Manhattan socialite set.
The novel portrays the struggles of a young nanny who cares for a poor little rich boy who is emotionally abandoned and rigidly programmed by narcissistic parents (the nursery school interviews, latin lessons, the “spatula move” where the mother deflects a hug and keeps the child off her clothing.) The nanny puts up with increasing hours without increasing pay, increasingly baroque shopping errands, and being berated for mistakes like getting the wrong brand of lavender water.
Subplots: the nanny is caught in the middle of the dad’s office affair, and pursues a “Harvard Hottie” of her own.
The Amazon reviews follow one or more of the following paths:

  • glee at watching the very rich act worse than you and me
  • sympathy with the nanny for caring for Grayer though his parents are nasty people and bad employers
  • lack of sympathy with the nanny for accepting said working conditions
  • sympathy for children who grow up that way
  • appreciation for the novel’s satirical comedy
  • disappointment at the unpolished writing style

I enjoyed the picture of the hellish life under pearls and signed original artwork on the Upper East Side. I enjoyed the catty detail about

  • the absurd programmed lives of wealthy preschoolers

    Tuesday: 4-5pm: Swimming lesson at Asphalt Green, 90th Street and East End Avenue. One emaciated woman in a Chanel swimsuit and five nannies in muumuus all pleading with toddlers to “Get in the water.”

  • the absurd lives of wealthy adults

    I’ll need you to start assembling the following items for the gift bags: Annick Goutal soap; Piper Heidseick, small bottoe, Morocco leather travel picture frame, red or green; Mont Blanc pen— small; LAVENDAR WATER
    Have you met Julio? Isn’t he a genius? He is the tree [decorating] expert. You should see what he did at the Egglestons– it was just breathaking
    …the tower of cashmere sweaters, each one wrapped with tissue and individually stored in its own clear drawer…Each pair of panties, every bra, every stocking is individually packed in a Ziplock baggy and labeled: “Bra, Hanro, white,” “Stockings, Fogal, black.

  • The army of paraprofessionals hired to guide the education of toddlers:

    “Do you play the Suzuki tapes?”
    “Only when he takes a bath”
    “Have you been reading to him from the Wall Street Journal? The Economist? The Finanical Times”?
    “What methodology are you following to dress him? And I suppose you are not documenting his choices with him on a closet diagram, nor are you having him translate his color and sizes into the Latin.

The book isn’t great art: I have no complaints about rapid writing, shallow characterization, and minor plot gaps.
But I also felt like the books played rich people for cheap laughs.
In contrast to her employers, our heroine has loving parents (schoolteacher and director of association of battered women’s shelters); a creative, independent, doting grandma.
But heartless parenting, relentless schedules, and narcissistic sex lives are characteristics of the downside of American culture at all income levels. The book lets readers get off the hook by attributing these traits to multi-millionaires.
The nanny is loving and firm and playful with the kids. She also has a lot in common with her employers; she covets designer shoes, drinks too much, spends extra income on clothes and alcohol and then feels stuck in a horrible job for the money.
The Harvard Hottie works for the UN war crimes tribunal at the Hague; he isn’t an investment banker. But he’s obviously a catch for our young upwardly mobile heroine in the way the restaurant-owning son of a fellow nanny is obviously not.
The social x-rays who employ our heroine scheme and sneak to get their men; use the men’s money for status and luxuries; and then are at constant risk of social decline when their men move on to the next trophy. Our heroine may become as dependent on her HH for money and prestige as her employers.


Six months after moving into the house, I finally put mezuzahs on most of the doors (I put a mezuzah by the front door when I moved in). Mezuzahs are small cases holding a scroll of parchment with Torah verses. The custom is to place them on the right side of doorways heading into a room.
Mezuzot on the doors are supposed to remind you of the presence of God and the commandments. Which sounds like it might be grim, but it isn’t, it’s joyful. For example, in each room, I tried to think about the different good things I would get to do in the rooms — hospitality in the front room, cooking tasty food for guests and healthy food for me in the kitchen, study and reading in the library, enjoying the garden on the deck.
The house has a LOT of doors. The entry way has an outside door and door to the enclosed porch. The kitchen opens onto the dining room and sitting room. The library opens onto the front room and the hall. The bedroom opens onto the hall and the deck. I have never needed this number of mezuzahs before.
My parents very generously gave me a set of large, beautiful, expensive scrolls, along with a set of trasparent lucite holders with the world’s worst industrial design. The bottom of the holders has a plastic plug that screws in, to keep the scroll clean and dry.
The plug has holes drilled through it that are supposed to align with holes in the case when you rotate it to the right orientation. But the plug is not perforated all the way through. You need to bang a nail through 1/4″ of hard plastic, while trying to keep the plug from sliding along the screw treads and misaligning the holes. Or try to drill through the plastic (same problems). Or simply unscrew the plug, put the nail through the holes in the case, and think about spiders nesting in your mezuzah cases.
The mezuzah case I had put at the front door when I moved in was one that my friend Joan had given me. It was wood that she had carved herself. She had said that it was not protected, and shouldn’t be used outdoors, but it was the only one that I thought I had (I actually found another one today), so I put it up temporarily when I moved in. Now it is discolored, and sitting in a closet shelf. Sorry Joan.

Syndicating comments

On an experimental MovableType weblog I’ve been playing with comments syndication. I would love to be able to subscribe to comments when I’m following a conversation, instead of manually pinging the weblog, and would be happy to syndicate comments feeds to others.
So far the “comments syndication” examples I’ve seen from Bill Kearney and Phil Ringnalda have involved syndicating all of the comments for a given weblog.
Instead I’d like to be able to syndicate and subscribe to a single conversation at a time — isn’t that how you particate in blogconversations?
I’m still futzing with it, will let you know when and if something works.

Can we own our personal information?

There’s an intriguing article by Kevin Bedell over at the O’Reilly site suggesting that we trademark our personal information. If we get legal protection for our personal data, then we can charge others for using it and restrict others from using it.
This sounds like an absolutely wonderful idea to me — I always wondered why other have legal rights to our personal data and we don’t.
I’d love to see this idea batted around the blogosphere, vetted by the friendly lawyers, implemented in the lazyweb.

Politics and LOTR

According to the New York Times, Viggo Mortenson, who plays Aragorn in Lord of the Rings, wore a “No Blood for Oil” t-shirt on the Charlie Rose talk show to make it clear that the movie wasn’t US pro-war propaganda.
When I watched the movie, I did think about the danger of portraying the enemy as absolute evil at a time when our government is using the meme – er, bluntly, and portraying enemy armies as zombies when we have technology that removes soldiers far from the act of killing.
I hesitated to post this, since the political interpretations are more boring than the movie. The movie is fun as mythic fantasy; the idea of watching another movie in the series next time this year sounds promising at a time when the year ahead looks uncertain.