Archive for April 16, 2010


April 16, 2010 Leave a comment

Emma, one year ago

Earlier this week I mentioned the article in the current New York Review on Grigory Perelman, but failed to point out the issue’s two items of feline fun, having not yet stumbled (pounced?) on them. Let me fill in the gap. I’ll take the opportunity as well to add a few words about our resident feline.

Tim Flannery reviews four books on animal behavior. All four sound superb, but of particular interest for us here is Flannery’s discussion of Temple Grandin’s latest book (with Catherine Johnson), Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals. Commenting on the cat chapter, Flannery writes:

Cats are a big part of my life, so I read Grandin’s chapter on felines with unusual concentration. I was a little dismayed, therefore, to discover that “animal behaviorists and ethologists don’t know as much about cats and their emotions as we do about other domestic animals.” I thought I knew my cats pretty well, but Grandin surprised me by having much of great interest to say about these superbly sensual, mysterious creatures. One bare fact that had hitherto escaped me is that there are two basic cat personalities—bold and shy—which are associated with coat color. Black cats, it turns out, are usually laid-back, while tortoiseshells are the typical “scaredy cats.” I live with a black and a tortoiseshell cat (known respectively as the Captain and Bernadette), who could be models for this: the Captain is as solid as a rock, his aura of calm spreading far and wide, while Bernadette has been known to take fright at her own tail. Both, incidentally, had identical upbringings from kittenhood.

This hit home. Our own tortoiseshell, Emma, turns 14 next week. Her sister and fellow tortie, Goldie, who disappeared a few years ago, was the classic scaredy cat. However much she accepted us, however willing she might be to sit on our laps or flop for petting, if she were walking down the hall and saw or heard us coming, she’d run the other way. If company were around, she made herself invisible. But in her final years, her desire for chicken, beef, and fish overcame her fear. She would be drawn to the dining table, however many strangers were there, stopping at each chair to see if food were forthcoming.

Emma, though never as skittish, wouldn’t dream of coming to the dining table if strangers were about. She trusted no one, at least until a year ago, when she found an unexpectedly new level of calm. In response to our months-long remodel, she came to accept the constant comings and goings of assorted craftsmen, even allowing Bert, our carpenter/project-manager/friend, to pet her. However, since Joel’s return home in December, simultaneous with the end of the remodel, she has regressed. Initially, she didn’t quite trust that he was back for real. But by the end of January, after Gail and I came home from our third trip of the month, she had re-attached herself to him, like a barnacle to a ship. No longer does she come downstairs to the main floor in the morning to go outside when I get up. She’ll stay on Joel’s bed until he wakes up, and if he wakes up late enough, she might just stay on the bed for the day. The disturbing aspect of all this is that in treating Joel as a quasi-sibling, she has become a scaredy tortie cat.

The latest twist is that Joel took off two nights ago on a road trip — riding shotgun for his friend Michael on his drive back to Boston — and suddenly I’m back in Emma’s life. She woke me up this morning as the birds started tweeting. I ignored her, but an hour later I got up to let her out, and an hour after that she insisted on licking me for five minutes. I haven’t merited such treatment in months. Not that I missed it.

Enough about Emma. The current New York Review has another piece entirely about cats, Pounce, an essay by the late English writer Rebecca West that will appear next month in The Essential Rebecca West: Uncollected Prose. Unfortunately, the full article is not available to non-subscribers, but if you love cats, be sure to find it. Pounce came to live with West as a kitten during World War II. Here’s an excerpt:

Then suddenly a disquieting fact was brought to my notice. We lived on the top floor of the apartment house, and outside our windows a cornice ran round the four sides of the building. This Pounce used as a playground, to take the air and exercise his sense of power by ordering the pigeons he found there to take off into the empyrean, and we used to watch him complacently. But it now appeared that he had been using the cornice for other and odious purposes. He had been visiting a neighbor of ours. Not all our neighbors, only one. He had walked past the window of hosts who would have been glad to entertain him, who cried “Pussy, pussy,” as he went by, imagining him to be innocent and playful like themselves, and he went round two sides of the building to the apartment furthest from ours, to call on Mr. Gubbins: the one person among our neighbors who belonged to the same unhappy race as my mother, who feared cats.

The abominable genius of Pounce not only led him to this victim but indicated to him the moments when he was alone and most vulnerable. The poor man suffered from the fear of cats in an even more intense form than my mother. When he saw a cat he became paralyzed. Pounce used to visit him when he was having a bath. Mr. Gubbins was not favored by nature. He was an industrialist who looked like a Communist cartoonist’s victim of a wicked capitalist: a tall and flabby man, with pouches under his pale eyes and drooping cheeks and chins and paunch, and the unpleasant peculiarity that his wispy mustache and strands of hair combed across his bald scalp were bright gold like the yolk of an egg. When Pounce dropped into his bathroom and sat down on his haunches and looked at Mr. Gubbins the poor man’s deplorable and pendulous nakedness was then congealed. He could not get to his bath towel, to his bell, to his door, he could only utter loud wordless groans for help. If his door was locked, he had to stay where he was until his manservant crawled out on the cornice and released him. And Pounce had always left before the manservant arrived.

Categories: Cats, Writing

Antietam, Gettysburg, Books, Kindle

April 16, 2010 Leave a comment

I’ll be in DC the week after next for some business. Gail will join me at the end, and two weeks from tomorrow we will take our first Civil War battlefield trip. That Saturday, we’ll drive up to Antietam National Battlefield, where we hope to get a tour with a local battlefield guide. We’ll then continue on to Gettysburg, where we’ll be staying at a bed and breakfast for two nights. The next day we’ll spend visiting Gettysburg National Military Park, where again we hope to have the help of a local guide. (I called this morning for guides and may be too late for Antietam. I’m awaiting a call back on Gettysburg, which seems to have an army of guides, so I assume we will succeed in reserving a tour.) I’m excited. This is long overdue. Perhaps it will be the first of many such trips.

Yesterday afternoon I looked into books we might read in preparation. Many years ago, I read James McPherson’s mammoth Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. I could try re-reading it. It’s so physically large that it would be a candidate for buying again in its Kindle version, though the Kindle is a disaster when it comes to displaying maps and photographs. Instead, I looked for books focused specifically on the two battles. For Antietam, I found another of McPherson’s books, the slim Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam: the Battle That Changed the Course of the American Civil War. And what do you know, he has an even slimmer book on Gettysburg, Hallowed Ground: A Walk at Gettysburg, in the superb Crown Journeys series of travel books. (I wrote about another member of the series, Frank Conroy’s Time & Tide: A Walk Through Nantucket, in one of the first posts for this blog.)

After a little more searching, I decided to buy McPherson’s two books. Now what? Buy the physical book or the electronic Kindle version? Or, maybe buy my first electronic books from the Apple store, for the iPad. Well, I eliminated the last possibility quickly — they aren’t available. But both were available for Kindle. Then I remembered that the Kindle is a map-viewing disaster, and surely I would want to study battlefield maps. On the other hand if I got the books on the Kindle, Gail and I could read them simultaneously. And I love the Crown Journeys series so much that maybe I would buy the Gettysburg book in both forms, one for maps and as a keepsake, the other for immediate access and simultaneous reading. As a starting point, I might as well get both for the Kindle, and that’s what I did.

I read the opening material of both and soon found myself looking at a map of Antietam. It was terrible. Useless. Ah, but the iPad has a free Kindle app, which I downloaded last week when I brought the iPad home. (Once one buys a Kindle book, one can download it to the Kindle itself or to the iPhone or the iPad). I downloaded the Antietam book, paged through it for the map, and it worked! I could do the usual two-finger expansion motion, as one would with photographs or webpages, getting the map to fill the screen, and it was entirely legible. A win for the iPad. On the other hand, the iPad is sufficiently heavier, and larger in size, that it’s not comfortable to hold with one hand, so for basic text reading I’m sure I will prefer the Kindle. If I’m willing to travel with both, I can use the Kindle for most reading, switching to the iPad version for maps and photos.

This may not be the best solution, but it will do. Another weakness of electronic reading, even if I’m satisfied with the quality of the graphics, is that it’s not as easy to return to reference items — maps, photos, family trees — as in a book. You can’t just flip back to a particular spot. You can mark a page. I’ll have to do that with the maps. But still, just turning to the desired page in a book seems a lot easier. Or maybe it’s just more familiar. Maybe I’ll get used to the electronic equivalent.

I didn’t mention it, but before I headed east at the beginning of March, I bought Kindle versions of two new travel books whose reviews convinced me that I had to have them: Peter Hassler’s Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory and Ted Conover’s The Routes of Man: How Roads Are Changing the World and the Way We Live Today . I thought they would be perfect reading on the trip. I got on the plane to Philadelphia to start the trip and immediately started reading Conover’s book. (One problem with electronic reading — when the plane’s doors shut, you have to shut the device until you’re 10,000 feet in the air. But there’s always the airline flight magazine.) I wasn’t thinking too clearly when I ordered the books. I just figured I could carry both on the trip easily, thanks to the Kindle, but I forgot about the map issue. Each chapter of Conover’s book recounts a different trip, opening with the tracking of the source of mahogany being used for expensive furniture in New York, from New York backwards to the Peruvian coast, over the Andes, and down into the Amazon basin. As I began to read, I realized that a map would be useful. I then saw that the author helpfully provides one. But on the Kindle, forget it. Amazon is going to have to figure out a way to improve its graphics presentation. As a start, a higher-contrast touch screen would help, with the ability to zoom in and out by Apple-style pinching moves. No doubt this will appear in time.

Categories: Books, History, Technology, Travel


April 16, 2010 Leave a comment

Tagliolini with truffles, butter, and truffle oil

[From the slide show that accompanies the review, with photographs by Daniel Krieger.]

It’s always fun to read a negative review by a good writer. Sam Sifton’s NYT review two days ago of Nello (on Madison between 62nd and 63rd) is a superb example of the genre. One sample:

Nello, which opened in 1992, is an ecosystem that is almost incomprehensible to those not a part of it. The food is not very good. Yet the restaurant’s customer base is built of the richest and most coddled people in the city, who love it for its elegance and, perhaps, simplicity.

It is a private club of sorts, where the dues are paid nightly. The meetings are unadvertised. Nello’s dining room can be crowded at 3 p.m. or midnight. It can also be empty at 1 p.m. or 9 p.m. Regular patrons respond to whistles mere customers cannot hear.

The table of four that night was made up of that latter group: New Yorkers relatively new to the restaurant, unknown to the management.

They ate crisp artichokes offered as carciofi alla giudia. These tasted of shirt cardboard. They ate sawdusty chicken livers lashed with balsamic. They sipped at lentil soup familiar to anyone who owns a can opener and shared too-salty saffron risotto, correctly yellow, of no particular flavor.

The patrons come in for as much ridicule as the restaurant itself.

One night at dinner, there was a very tall woman in elegant clothes, with skin stretched tight over her face in unnatural ways and glasses the size of salad plates to magnify that. She was eating with a small red-faced fellow with dark hair in a center part, who was wearing an ascot and green Tyrolean coat. A cartoonist might render them as an awkward French giraffe and a mischievous Austrian chimp.

The overall rating is “Fair”, which is a level below one star. The summary judgment on atmosphere is “oligarchic chic”; the sound level is “a low buzz of self-satisfaction [that] rises into occasional peals of self-delighted laughter.” I don’t know how fair the review of the restaurant is, but it’s surely overly harsh on the clientele. Anyway, have a look. And if you dine there, let me know how it is.

Categories: Restaurants, Writing