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Great violins, like great wines, only get better with age. Or not

Kudos to Alice Robb at the New Republic for letting us in on the following:

A paper1 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team of researchers led by Claudia Fritz, an acoustics expert and professor at the Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris, asked ten renowned violin soloists to select which of 12 violins they would take on an imaginary concert tour. Half of the violins were made by Stradivarius or another 18th-century Italian master, while half came from contemporary European or North American makers (whose identities aren’t revealed in the paper). The volunteers—including Russian virtuoso Ilya Kaler and former London Symphony Orchestra soloist Susanne Hou—had two opportunities to try out the violins, once in a rehearsal room and once in a 300-seat concert hall.

After spending two and half hours playing around on the different instruments, six out of the ten musicians chose one of the modern violins for the hypothetical tour—and only three picked a Stradivarius. The two most-preferred violins were both contemporary; the least-preferred was a Stradivarius. Fritz also had the violinists guess whether each instrument they played was old or new—and they guessed right just about half the time.

Alice doesn’t bother to say how much a new violin costs, but a (very) quick search suggests that a high-quality fiddle is going to set you back about three or four Gs. So it’s hard to imagine paying more than $10,000 for new fiddle, even if it’s custom-made, as compared to a million-plus for a Strad.

I believe it was Charles Darwin who first talked about the narcissism of small differences—that, for example, since women tend to have less facial hair than men, the less facial hair a woman has, the more “feminine,” and thus the more desirable, she becomes. It’s becoming increasingly clear that much connoisseurship is the narcissism, not of small differences, but of nonexistent ones. I recently blasted Felix Salmon for insisting that “great” wines really are great even after acknowledging that every blindfold study shows that even the most recognized œnophiles, when blindfolded, actually prefer $5 wines over Chateau Lafite-Rothschild!2

  1. An abstract of the paper is here. You need a subscription to read the whole thing. 

  2. Which costs about $2,000 a bottle. 

Pseudo New Yorker

Legal humor here.

“Just act natural. But remember, they’re extremely turf conscious.”

“They love a bargain, and they love their oolong.”

“It turns out they are social animals. There were just no coffee shops on the veldt.”

“Ix-nay on the ippo-hay jokes, s’il vous plaît.”

“Come January, this place will be nothing but elephants.”

“It turns out that whole opposable-thumb thing was way over-rated.”

“Apparently, that shift in the Swiss banking laws touched off a real migration.”

“This is nothing. You should see this place on ‘Scone Tuesday.’ It’s a real madhouse.”

“Don’t worry. They’ll be gone in a month. As soon as a place gets hot they drop it.”

“Whoever’s selling those time shares on Central Park West is making a killing.”

Reiham Salam to neocons—“I’m just as dumb as you are! Really!”

Last week, Reihan Salam wrote a short column called “Why I Am Still a Neocon.” A lot of people sort of made fun of Reihan, pointing out, among other things, that nothing Reihan said made much sense, or had much of anything to do with any policies that might be described as “neocon.” They also pointed out that Reihan’s clincher—“Richard Nixon killed my uncle” (by supporting West Pakistan’s oppression of East Pakistan/Bangladesh back in 1971)—was not entirely on point. (Over at the American Conservative, Daniel Larison provides his own beatdowns of Reihan’s inconsistencies and links to others as well.)

In response to the fact that he made an ass of himself in about 500 words, this week Reihan makes a larger ass of himself in about 2,500. It seems to me that Reihan’s major problem is that he didn’t write the first column to say anything substantive about foreign affairs. Rather, he wrote it to convince the Bill Kristols and Charlie Krauthammers of the world that he’s still a right guy. It’s not easy being a liberal these days, not with Barack “I am the law” Obama in the White House, but it’s not easy being a conservative either, not if you actually want to think for yourself, as Reiham is occasionally wont to do. Well, such men are dangerous, and it’s Reihan’s job to explain to Bill, Charlie, and the rest that when it comes to foreign policy, he’s just as dumb as they are, that he looks forward to reviving the Cold War, if we could just find a damn enemy.

But the cream of the jest is that Reihan attempts to talk the neocon talk and walk the neocon walk without once mentioning the word “Israel.” Dude, that’s the whole ballgame!

James Thurber, A Reader’s Guide, Part 7


Over a month ago I began running the first episodes of “James Thurber, A Reader’s Guide,” a rambling consideration of Thurber’s works, examining his life and work in some detail. The links to the first part and the most recent part are given below. Part 7 continues my discussion of the his “Mr. and Mrs. Monroe short stories from his second book, The Owl in the Attic.




“Mr. Monroe Holds the Fort” is another noises in the night story, Mr. Monroe pretending to be an expert on guns (a theme that Thurber would, again, handle brilliantly in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty). Mr. Monroe, left alone, arms himself in response to a “flitting, clothes-closety sound” from upstairs. Attempts to describe strange, slightly ominous, indescribable sounds, attempts that sometimes bend and stretch the language in onomatopoetic fashion, are common in Thurber. The story ends with Mr. Monroe, pretending to be brave, heading off to pick up his wife at the train station. He has the gun with him, and there’s an almost subconscious suggestion that he would like to shoot his wife with it, something that didn’t belong in the story but which Thurber perhaps did not feel like taking out.

“The Middle Years” is solely about Mr. Monroe. At a party, a young lady—perhaps the same young blonde we met before, perhaps not—makes a play for him. He is rather startled to realize that he could have this young woman—maybe—and he recalls how, ten years before, the prospect would have driven him into a frenzy of longing, body and soul on fire. But now, would it be worth it, after all? Then, he had no choice in the matter. Be it agony or be it ecstasy, he was for it. But now, one needs to examine things. He picks up a copy of The Golden Bowl, not usually considered a goad to an assignation, and reads several pages. It’s better to think about these things a bit, and think, and think, until that little spark, which was probably nothing in the first place, goes out, and the prospect of the wild longing of youth fades away. Besides, if you think about things long enough, there won’t be time to act, and so you will be spared the necessity of making a decision in the first place. And so poor Mr. Monroe emasculates himself, with no assistance needed from either Mrs. Monroe or the working class.

Who were Thurber’s models? I don’t know. His dry, direct, style, observing everyone from the outside, except Mr. Monroe, whose thought processes we are privy to, owes nothing to James.1 Thurber’s other favorite author was Joseph Conrad, who surely taught him something, and he was apparently fascinated by Ohio boy O. Henry, though nothing could be further from O. Henry’s trick endings than Thurber’s spare sketches. An American who did write short, spare, merciless stories was Ring Lardner, who Thurber greatly admired and whose epistolary novel, You Know Me Al (1916), was once immensely famous.2 Lardner was a close friend of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and his alcoholic despair and early death formed a sort of template for Fitzgerald’s later career.

The second part of The Owl in the Attic is “The Pet Department,” a wonderfully funny series Thurber ran in the New Yorker, featuring idiot questions from supposed readers—“We have a fish with ears and wonder if it is valuable”—along with deadpan responses and deadpan drawings that show Thurber’s fascinating “third-rate” technique at three-quarters strength. (It was E.B. White who insisted, over and over again, that Thurber’s drawings deserved to be published (which, in the case of Is Sex Necessary?, they scarcely did, significantly increasing Thurber’s debt to him). The rest of the book is taken up with another series, “Ladies and Gentleman’s Guide to Modern English Usage,” which Thurber tells us is inspired by W. H. Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Fowler’s Dictionary, first published in 1926, was famously Harold Ross’s bible, although in fact he doesn’t seem to have used it quite as scrupulously as is often supposed.3

Thurber’s “Guide” is sometimes described as a parody of Fowler, but in fact it isn’t. Thurber makes reference to Fowler on occasion, but rarely in any detail. In all the pieces, Thurber seizes on a classic example of a grammatical quibble—“who” or “whom,” or whether one should ever split an infinitive—and then goes off on a detour and frolic having nothing to do with grammar. Usually, being Thurber, he gets away with it.

Thurber denies that it is always wrong to split an infinitive: “This is of a piece with the sentimental and outworn notion that it is always wrong to strike a lady.” This leads to a reminiscence about a “charming lady who [was] overcome by the unaccountable desire, at formal dinners with red and white wines, to crawl up on the table and lie down.” After some experimentation, her companions learned to make her keep her seat by “fetching her a sharp downward blow on the head. She would then sit quietly through the rest of the dinner, smiling dreamily and nodding at people, and looking altogether charming.”

Such adroit roughhousing should know its limits: “A man who does not know his own strength could, of course, all too easily overshoot the mark, and, instead of producing the delightful languor to which I have alluded, knock his companion completely under the table, an awkward situation which should be avoided at all costs, because it would leave two men seated next each other.” Thurber then rambles on for another page, describing how quickly dinner parties can go downhill, with men throwing salad plates, the affair further disrupted by “the cries of ‘Whammy!’ and ‘Whoops!’ , with which most men accompany the act of hurling plates.” It’s all delicious, but it has nothing to do with Fowler, just an example of Thurber’s remarkable capacity for seemingly effortless fun.

  1. Thurber’s “Talk of the Town” pieces—which, he estimated, totaled close to a million words, most of them rewrites rather than original pieces of reporting—have a Jamesian languor, though the writing isn’t nearly complex as “late James.” These pieces, which, of course, have gone almost completely unread since they first appeared, are the only part of Thurber’s work that, to my mind, at least, bear the direct influence of his beloved Henry. 

  2. Rather like Gulliver’s Travels, You Know Me Al was regarded as richly comic, which is true as long as you don’t realize how deeply Lardner’s knives are penetrating. 

  3. I’ve previously riffed on Fowler and Ross here 

Heeere’s Mickey!

Are you as tired of reading my snark on neocon windbags as I am writing it? Well, I thought so. Anyway, poor Mickey Rooney finally bought the big one. The New York Times gives a nice recap of his life and frequent hard times, noting that the one-time Hollywood box office king (three years in row, from 1939 to 1941) fell so low that “at one point in 1950, the only job he could get was touring Southern states with the Hadacol Caravan. Admission to the shows was a box top from a bottle of a 26 percent alcohol tonic that the government soon forced off the market.”

Yet only two years earlier, the Mick was in top form, starring in the MGM spectacular Words and Music, which unfortunately did not receive the box office it deserved. I’ve raved about it here, and above you will find one of Mickey’s best performances, linked, appropriately enough, with Miss Angst herself, Judy Garland, in a splendid rendition of Roger & Hart’s classic “I Wish I Were In Love Again.” Break out the Hadacol, everybody, and let’s have a party!

A new must-read from Alan Vanneman—“Vorak of Kolnap”

Yes, I do have a new novel, Vorak of Kolnap, a two-fisted—or, rather, four-fisted, since Vorak is all about the insects—sci-fi thriller set in a galaxy far, far away. We’ll be redoing the “books” section of Literature R Us to accommodate Vorak, but in the meantime you can download the ebook version here or order a print on demand paperback here. To give you a little background on Vorak, I’m reprinting the foreword:

Vorak came about in a pretty odd manner—a dispute in the Northwest Fiction Writers Group, now sadly defunct but a great bunch back in the day. We were arguing, as I recall, about “magical fiction”, with me being the lone realist in the crowd. I was pelted with examples of great “magical fiction”, including Kafka’s Metamorphosis, which I always thought was a little tough on cockroaches. Anyway, I decided that I would write a “better” story about cockroaches than Kafka and a short story I called “The Cockroach Star” came about as a result.

“The Cockroach Star” ended with my hero, Vorak, rising from the bottom to the top. For some reason I had the idea for a sequel, which would send him in exile to Kolnap, the least distinguished post in the entire Nardan Confederation, allowing for another return to glory. Once I had him on Kolnap, however, he seemed to be having so much fun there that he never made the trip home. Vorak of Kolnap is the result.

Pseudo New Yorker

Legal humor here.

“I think this whole ‘my clerk can beat your clerk’ thing has gotten way out of hand.”

“At this point, I would rather listen to Scalia sing show tunes.”

“Roberts just doesn’t know how to throw a party.”

“I don’t care what they come up with. Ping-pong is not a learned profession.”

“What do you mean the Supreme Court can’t declare a mistrial? We can declare anything we damn please.”

“Even if she wins, I don’t think a modified pencil grip deserves a patent.”

“We shouldn’t be hearing these damn product liability cases in the first place.”

“So far, the old ‘naked eye’ test is holding up pretty well.”

“Well, I don’t think a reasonable man would regard this as an acceptable method of discouraging frivolous suits.”

“‘Play or pay’ should not be part of contemporary jurisprudence.”

Sonny Stitt—“Lover Man”

Incredible vintage video of Stitt with other early bop musicians Walter Bishop, piano, Tommy Potter, bass, and the legendary Kenny Clarke, drums. Trombonist JJ Johnson is the actual leader of the group. He introduces the piece but doesn’t play. Posted by “Soglider

James Thurber, A Reader’s Guide


Over a month ago I began running the first episodes of “James Thurber, A Reader’s Guide,” a rambling consideration of Thurber’s works, examining his life and work in some detail. The links to the first part and the most recent part are given below. Part 6 continues my discussion of the short story “The Imperturbable Spirit” from his second book, The Owl in the Attic.




Thurber was raised on the dividing line of the middle and lower classes. While his mother’s family were wealthy and his father’s manner of life was entirely middle-class, the family’s finances were not so lofty. Thurber attended a “tough” elementary school, where, he said, he would not have survived without a “protector,” a black kid named Floyd who was impressed that Thurber knew that the printed word “Duquesne” was pronounced “Dukane.”1

For Thurber men, contact with the working class male is always fraught with peril. Thurber envied and resented the working man’s physical self-confidence, his ease with machinery, his ability to make the real world submit to his commands. When Mr. Monroe arrives on the dock, he sees the fateful hatbox sitting on the pier, with two porters standing around it. He supposes them to be guards. “That your box, brother?” one of them asks. “Oh, no. Nope,” says the terrified Mr. Monroe. He waits until their backs are turned, then grabs the box and races away.

In the next story, “Mr. Monroe Outwits a Bat,” Mr. Monroe obviously does not outwit a bat. He pretends to beat it to death, but instead is just thumping a doorjamb with a rolled-up newspaper. He then sleeps in the hallway until the early morning, when he creeps into his bedroom after being sure the bat is gone.2

It’s striking that not only do Mr. and Mrs. Monroe have separate bedrooms, their bedrooms aren’t even close to one another. Thurber doesn’t explain this, no doubt because he didn’t want to. Thurber men have a terrible time sleeping. The slightest noise drives them to distraction, and even when it’s quiet they’re likely to drive themselves to distraction anyway, playing word games in their head in a self-defeating attempt to fall asleep.

“The ‘Wooing’ of Mr. Monroe” presents Mr. Monroe rather shockingly as a successful poet, so successful that a designing woman is out to take him away from Mrs. Monroe. Mr. Monroe is not physically present in the story, which consists of a conversation between Mrs. Monroe and the cunning blonde. Mrs. Monroe manages to convince her that “John’s” mechanical incompetence and general helplessness in any practical matters whatsoever outweigh the cash and prestige that his “lovely sonnets” are somehow able to deliver.

“Mr. Monroe and the Moving Men” presents poor Mr. Monroe in full collision with the working class. His wife leaves him in charge of directing the packing for the summer, some things going to the summer house and some in storage. Why she should do this, knowing his supreme ineptness, is another matter.

When the moving men show up, Mr. Monroe quickly loses control of the situation. They start moving pieces without being told which goes where, while Mr. Monroe stands idly by, figuring that, since they’re moving men, they know where stuff should go.

“What about the china, chief?” one of the men asked him. Mr. Monroe hesitated. “Pack it and let it stand for a while,” he said, at last. “I want to think about it.” From downstairs later he could hear the voices of the men, huge, sweating, rough fellows, joking about him: “This guy wants to think it over—ja get that, Joe?”

It gets worse. They stop calling him “chief” and call him “buddy,” or even “sonny.” Agonizing over the china, he asks “Does this look like summer china to you?” “Naw, dat’s winter china,” one of them tells him. When at last the men are gone, Mr. Monroe starts to relax, only to realize that, of course, he’s screwed everything up. He’s sent everything to storage, and there will be nothing at the summer house, and Mrs. Monroe will be furious with him, and he will have no defense against her. Comedy is tragedy viewed from a distance, and here we’re too close to Mr. Monroe’s humiliation and pain for it to be entirely funny.

“The Monroes Find a Terminal” may owe something to Thurber’s wanderings in New York City, searching for topics for “Talk of the Town,” which he wrote while turning out the Monroe stories. New York City in the Twenties was a manufacturing metropolis, and the fringes of the city were a rabbit warren of docks and rail yards. The Monroes are sent a Scottie by railway freight and have to locate the correct terminal, one of, apparently, several dozen in the city.3 Mr. Monroe (of course) wants to throw up his hands, but Mrs. Monroe perseveres and tracks the Scottie down. Thurber tacks on a last line, having Mrs. Monroe kiss Mr. Monroe with the line “My great big wonderful husband,” to cover his emasculation.

  1. Thurber’s description of his school, Sullivant, still boggles the mind. Although the grades ran 1 through 8, according to Thurber, there were many black “kids” in their late teens or even their early twenties, who treated the school as a sort of social club, playing on the school baseball team, which was presumably their real purpose for attending. According to Thurber, they avoided school when they were young, and never got past the fourth grade. Apparently, the school was afraid to kick them out, since they could beat up anyone on the staff, and, anyway, the baseball team would have suffered. 

  2. Once when I was sleeping alone in a strange house I was bedeviled, not by a bat but a cricket. I searched under the kitchen sink and found a can of insect spray. Then I lifted up the floorboards in the bathroom and sprayed the little bastard. Piece of cake. 

  3. Although the Thurbers owned Scotties, they were in fact sent a poodle, not a Scottie, in this manner.