Excerpts from UD’s Pandemic Reading.

It’s Julian Barnes’ Nothing to be Frightened of.

The grammarian Pere Bouhours [on his deathbed] said: Je vas, ou je vais mourir: l’un ou l’autre se dit. (Loosely, ‘Soon I shall, or soon I will die: both are correct.’)


[L]ife is a matter of cosmic hazard, its fundamental purpose mere self-perpetuation… it unfolds in emptiness… our planet will one day drift in frozen silence… the human species, as it has developed in all its frenzied and over-engineered complexity, will completely disappear and not be missed, because there is nobody and nothing out there to miss us.


[A friend] consolingly quotes a study showing that fear of death drops off after the age of sixty. Well, I have got there before him, and can report that I am still waiting for the benefit. Only a couple of nights ago, there came again that alarmed and alarming moment, of being pitchforked back into consciousness, awake, alone, utterly alone, beating pillow with fist and shouting ‘Oh no Oh No OH NO’ in an endless wail, the horror of the moment – the minutes – overwhelming what might, to an objective witness, appear a shocking display of exhibitionist self-pity. An inarticulate one, too: for what sometimes shames me is the extraordinary lack of descriptive, or responsive, words that come out of my mouth. For God’s sake, you’re a writer, I say to myself…

The Art of Political Writing in L’Age de Trubu.

This is good.

Between calling Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) a panoply of Trumpish insults (and for the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee to be held for treason), engaging in his usual hatred of the press, talking about Mike Pompeo’s intimate undergarments, and quite obviously scaring the shit out of Finnish President Sauli Niinisto—who looked like he was the very unwilling star of an ISIS hostage video—Trump spent the day rapidly decompensating, and it was a hideous spectacle. All the Maximum Leader pronunciamentos won’t change the reality that Donald John Trump, 45th president of the United States, has lost his shit.

In private, Republicans are in the deepest despair of the Trump era. They’ve got that hang-dog, dick-in-the-dirt fatalism of men destined to die in a meaningless battle in a pointless war.

Why I read the New York Times rather than the Washington Post: Parul Sehgal.

You’ll never find so sharp and beautiful an evisceration of a book in UD‘s local paper, the Post. You’ll never find anything approaching it.

I’ve already talked about the stellar NYT music critic, Anthony Tommasini; next comes one of their book reviewers, who writes an informed, literate, playful take-down of Salman Rushdie’s latest novel. This is really good critical writing. Let’s see how she does it, with a few excerpts.

The novels are imaginative as ever, but they are also increasingly wobbly, bloated and mannered. He is a writer in free fall. What happened?

This will be her main point throughout: Rushdie retains his fantastic capacity to imagine, but has lost, over years of generating many novels, the structural and empirical grounding that made Midnight’s Children magic realism. Here’s her best paragraph:

That famous style has congealed in recent years; the flamboyance that once felt so free now seems strenuous and grating. “If he had a fault, it was that of ostentation, of seeking to be not only himself but a performance of himself,” Rushdie writes of a character in his novel “The Enchantress of Florence,” which could read like stinging self-critique. The later books — “Shalimar the Clown,” “Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights,” “The Golden House” — are all tics, technique and hammy narration that try to toupee over patchy stories, exhausted themes, types passing as characters. For a writer so frequently praised for ingenuity, Rushdie actually follows a formula of sorts. You could make yourself a bingo card: Classic Novel or Myth used as Scaffolding, Femme Fatale, Story within the Story (recounted by a Garrulous Narrator), Topical Concerns, Defense of Hybridity.

Toupee, right? The image captures the desperate, theatrical (“hammy”), fakery of someone who has aged out of – if you will – a full head.

Rushdie’s narrative impulses are centrifugal; they lie in tossing in celebrity cameos and literary allusions, in sending new plots into orbit in the hope they might lend glitter and ballast to a work sorely in need of both, sorely in need of tethering to the world, the concerted thinking and feeling of realism, not magic.

Glitter and ballast: A poetic pair with their flowing Ls and matching syllables and stresses and double letters. (See also: diamonds and rust.) In a very short review, Sehgal demonstrates deep knowledge of Rushdie’s work and of contemporary literature; she explains with uncompromising logic why his latest novel fails; and she writes enticing prose rich with metaphor.

‘If someone confides in you [about their depression], try not to say, “It’s all in your mind,” or “lighten up,” or, my personal favorite, “Happiness is a choice.” No, it’s really not. When I’m in a really bad place, I do my best to surround myself with positive people and upbeat music, but too often it feels as if I’m drowning in my own thoughts, while everyone else seems to be breathing comfortably.’

At the ridiculously young age of eighteen, a granddaughter of Robert Kennedy, Saoirse Kennedy-Hill, wrote a strong and confident opinion piece about her experience of depression.

Now, four years later, she has died of a drug overdose at the Kennedy compound. Her death will draw more attention to the opioid/overdose crisis among young Americans.

‘Are politics regressing to premodern forms? Did they never really progress beyond them? It is possible to read too much into these rallies and rituals. But when a man is legally murdered by having bricks thrown at his head, in a country as recently advanced as Brunei, I think we will have our answer.’

The decision to kill gays as a matter of state policy, however abortive and hedged, is not one that lends itself to charitable interpretation from those who consider themselves broadly liberal. And indeed I find all these hedges as risible as they are sincere. They sound like cognitive dissonance: loyalty to a religion and to a sovereign, mixing uncomfortably with a cosmopolitan moral sense that says killing gays means killing gays, and is abhorrent under any circumstance…

But the Sultanate of Brunei is, by the standard of, say, Saudi Arabia (let alone the Islamic State), liberal.


Excellent writing by Graeme Wood, in which, with a nod toward “the King’s touch,” he invokes the weird premodern/postmodern mix of many countries.

“We’re all carrying little pornography studios around with us in our pockets.”

Very nice sentence, from an amusing and well-written opinion piece by Dan Savage in the NYT.

Uncomfortably Numb:

An occasional series of pain-pensées- — from the addicted and formerly addicted.

Somewhere along the way we all started to confuse — disastrously — the eradication of pain with the eradication of suffering. Freedom from suffering should, indeed, be a basic human right. No one should have to endure unbearable cancerous or post-operative pain, and the patients-rights movement was an undeniable marker of progress. Somehow that turned into let there never be a moment of discomfort. The problem there, of course, is that any mild irritant can become unbearable. We build no tolerance to life.

When Brennan’s President or whatever, he’ll send out FAR better tweets than the current tweeter.

He sent this one today, in response to a tweet this morning from the current tweeter.

Whenever you send out such inane tweets, I take great solace in knowing that you realize how much trouble you are in & how impossible it will be for you to escape American justice. Mostly, I am relieved that you will never have the opportunity to run for public office again.


Nice writing.

[W]hile Acosta’s record covering up for a depraved plutocrat makes him a good fit for the Trump administration, it should disqualify him from public service.

“[S]urgery’s only prerequisite should be a simple demonstration of want.”

Only in America, mes petites; only in America.

Only in America would a person even think to say that anyone presenting herself to a surgeon as simply wanting this or that surgery must get it. The special brew here, of limitless national wealth and limitless personal entitlement, is uniquely American.


Scathing Online Schoolmarm says: The quality of writing in the opinion piece is strikingly high; I love the prose. The larger argument that happiness is not an end (see Adam Phillips for some of the best language about this) is an excellent one. Plus, the writer had a lot of good stuff to say about the recent Avital Ronell embarrassment.

But otherwise. Good lord.

‘ He would listen to my radio show and tell me how dumb I was for something I said. I’d ask him how someone so dumb could get into Rice.’

An example of very good writing.

Structurally unsound canapés

Where UD learned her manners.

Calm writing about rage.

Not easy to do, but this New York Times writer manages it.

Regardless of what happens to Kavanaugh, … this scandal has given us an X-ray view of the rotten foundations of elite male power. Despite Donald Trump’s populist posturing, there are few people more obsessed with Ivy League credentials. Kavanaugh’s nomination shows how sick the cultures that produce those credentials — and thus our ruling class — can be.

… His story shows, in lurid microcosm, how a certain class of men guard and perpetuate their privileges. Women who struggle ceaselessly to be smart enough, attractive enough, ambitious enough and likable enough have been playing a rigged game. As they realize that, their incandescent fury is remaking our politics. We’ll know things have changed when palling around with sexual abusers carries more stigma than being abused does.

‘GOP Men Let Lady Attorney ask Lady Accuser Questions about Fine Man Kavanaugh’

Best headline today.

Wonderful, funny writing from Frank Bruni.

To judge by his tweets, tantrums and apparent belief that Rudy Giuliani is an appropriate advocate, Donald Trump teeters at the precipice of incoherence and self-destruction, needing only a shove. Who best to administer it but a spouse with her own, separate bedroom in the White House and her own, separate hotel suite when they travel?

She inches ever closer to open contempt for him. She finds increasingly clever ways to show it. And it’s a perfect wedding of patriotism and payback for all the humiliations that he has heaped on her.

… Other first ladies beautified highways, promoted reading, planted squash. This one could abbreviate a nightmare.

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