‘The 9th Directive’

The 9th DirectiveThe 9th Directive by Adam Hall

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Have you ever noticed that most of the famous, fictional spies are terrible at their job?

Not all parts of it, of course. There is something to be said, I suppose, for a man who can get into all kinds of trouble and still keep his wits about him (i.e. shoot a gun while skiing, bring a disabled airplane under control, etc.). But there’s the rub, isn’t it? The getting into all kinds of trouble. It seems to me that the effective spy, the reliable spy, the spy who does his job properly is the one who never, for instance, finds himself strapped to a table with a laser pointed at his jubblies. (Speaking of James Bond, I cannot believe he wasn’t fired after the debacle at the end of “Skyfall.”)

“The 9th Directive,” which is recommended to fans of the pulp/spy genre, by Elleston Trevor (writing as Adam Hall) is a classic case. The protagonist, who goes by Quiller, perhaps a pseudonym, as well, is characterized — the most I could find online about him was on Wikipedia — as a “solitary, highly capable operative,” and “a highly skilled driver, pilot, diver, linguist and martial artist.”

To this list, after having read “Directive,” I would add arrogant, clumsy, reckless, shortsighted and pain in the ass. The plot unwinds in steamy Bangkok, propelled primarily by a series of mistakes made by the supposedly proficient protagonist. (Is it possible to spoil a novel written in 1966?) I won’t belabor the point. But suffice it to say, at no point does Mr. Quiller guess that his adversary, a martial-arts-obsessed marksman/assassin named Kuo, may have anticipated his actions. Never mind that Mr. Kuo repeatedly does.

Tellingly, most Internet descriptions of Mr. Quiller mention that he prefers to work alone. This is probably for dramatic effect, but his handlers never seem to recognize this as the red flag that it is. The fact is, all grownups, in addition to shining their shoes and tipping their waitresses, tolerate supervision with grace.

I suppose it is hard cheese to point out as much. The novel about the superefficient secret agent would probably run 12 dry pages.

Certainly, none of this takes away from a rollicking good book. Mr. Trevor effortlessly creates cinematic scenes, including a blindingly gilded stupa and warehouse rafters lined with colorful fighting kites. The action compels page-turning. The ending nicely balances the cynical and the plausible.

Recommended, if you can find a copy.


On borders


German speakers then responded to the backlash by crossing out the Italian names and replacing them with doodles and offensive messages, according to Italys daily La Repubblica newspaper.

via Language Dispute: South Tyrol Locals Add Italian Names to German Signs – SPIEGEL ONLINE.

After World War I, the victors settled border changes.

via County of Tyrol – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.


Life and Fate, by Vasily Grossman

Life and FateLife and Fate by Vasily Grossman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In a word, Epic.

View all my reviews

…instead of a means for strengthening a human community, “race, party, and state” become the end. “Nyet, nyet, nyet! The sole, true, and eternal objective of the struggle for life is a human being, his humble particularity, his right to this particularity.”

via The Russian Masterpiece Youve Never Heard of – By Leon Aron | Foreign Policy.

To get plausibly inside the past, we need to allow it to have been, as well as tragic, also hopeful, funny, preoccupied and ordinary.

via Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman | Books | The Guardian.

The zealots, bigots and creeps on both sides come across with equal clarity.

via “Life and Fate”: War, peace and love | The Economist.

When you were a child, you used to run to me for protection. Now, in moments of weakness, I want to hide my head on your knees; I want you to be strong and wise; I want you to protect and defend me.

via The Year in Listening: Vasily Grossman’s “Life and Fate” : The New Yorker.

“Yes, as well as this terrible Good…there is everyday human kindness”

via Life and Fate – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.


‘No Panic, No One Hang Back Now!’

Illustrations of Odyssey Polski: Odyseusz i Po...

Odysseus serving the Cyclops. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Assignment 1: Choose one episode from the Odyssey that was not given a Functionalist reading in lecture, and analyze this episode through a Functionalist lens. …What social norm does this episode legitimize?

A functionalist reading of Odysseus’ encounter with the Cyclops can serve to justify values of prudence and consideration in leadership, even in a society enamored with heroes. Leaders have grave responsibilities; recklessness can lead to ruin.

In Polyphemus’ cave, to the soundtrack of his shrieking men, Odysseus learns vital lessons: First, don’t act rashly; second, never underestimate danger; and third, when resolved, commit to action. He applies these lessons to bloody effect in the climactic books.

The folly of acting rashly is demonstrated to Odysseus within moments of meeting the Cyclops. Odysseus’ men, surveying the fleecy lambs and drying cheeses, propose to burgle the giant’s cave; but our hero compounds that audacious impulse by wanting to wait “till I saw him, saw what gifts he’d give.” He ignores the possibility that the Cyclops would be unaware of, or unconcerned by, the formalities of Grecian hospitality.

Odysseus’ greed leads him to underestimate danger: the giant’s cave he took to be a rustic grocery becomes a trap after the giant shuts himself in for the night. Instead of full bellies and parting gifts, Odysseus and his men spend the night groaning on the floor of a manure-strewn cave.

But Odysseus makes effective use of his time. He contrives a three-pronged plan to disable the giant (by getting him drunk and gouging out his eye), humiliate him (by convincing him that Odysseus’ name is “Nobody”) and complete the burglary that was proposed in the first place (by hiding under the sheep when the giant lets them out in the morning). Though his proposal is complicated, Odysseus is all in, as the card players say. He exhorts his men: “Courage — no panic, no one hang back now!”

Though the lessons take time to sink in — not long afterward, he walks his men into another cannibal ambush — they seem to form a blueprint for his confrontation with the suitors. Odysseus bides his time on Ithaca, collecting information and considering the risks before consummating the awful, final slaughter. Clever, brave Odysseus seems to have learned to value caution as much as courage.

Word of the Week: Obdurate


So, avuncular (unclelike), saturnine (sluggish), sybaritic (pleasure-loving), antediluvian (primitive), concomitant (accompanying), uxorious (fawning), lucubrate (laborious studying), vulpine (foxlike), fissiparous (fractious), skeuomorph (look it up yourself) and how about …obdurate?

After a few weeks in the tall grass of Internet dictionaries, I propose a return to the comforting hearth-smoke of Webster’s Fourth and my sturdy, handwritten cards of vocabulary words. Obdurate (AHB-der-itt), an adjective, from the Latin obduratus (to harden), is defined as “not easily moved to pity or sympathy; hardhearted.” It is snug in the pages of my dictionary between obcordate, an adjective for leaf-loving botanists that means “heart-shaped and joined to the stem at the apex,” and O.B.E., an abbreviation for Order of the British Empire.

The adverb, naturally, is obdurately, and some wags think you can swing a verb out of the deal, especially if you draw out the last syllable into an “ate.” (Mitt Romney’s bumbling political style has obdurated me against him forever.) But Webster’s Fourth does not agree, and I think you end up sounding like a member of the O.B.E. For the noun form, go with obduracy over obdurateness or obduration or anything else.

Anyway, that is fun, right? Such a useful word. So many applications, probably some of them sitting not too far from you in the office.

Really, though, I picked this word because of its delicious versatility. The succeeding alternative definitions are “2, hardened and unrepenting; impenitent,” and “3, not giving in readily; stubborn; obstinate; inflexible.” Obstinate! Impenitent! Like the opposite of Indiana Jones’s penitent man. (Chop!)

Now. To be honest, I had a mind to pick callipygian, an adjective, meaning “having shapely buttocks,” partly in response to the choice of uxorious that was imposed on me some weeks ago. But I obdurately stuck to my guns. (Get it?)

Anyway, a Google search for callipygian is a M.N.S.F.W. misadventure in Kim Kardashian articles. Obdurate is far more durable. Observe:

  • From The Daily News! “More than 75 percent of MPs are in favor of parliament functioning normally but the BJP is being ‘obdurate and stubborn’ in holding up proceedings over the coal blocks allocation, Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal said Monday.”
  • The Financial Times! “Egregious recent examples of bad corporate governance suggest that some very old governance chestnuts remain as obdurate as ever.”
  • The Irish Post! “We’ve seen his side take commanding leads in both games but, obdurate as ever, Kilkenny have always charged back at them.”


On Syndromes

It affects an estimated 50 to 100 tourists each year, the overwhelming majority of whom are evangelical Christians. Some of these cases simply involve tourists becoming momentarily overwhelmed by the religious history of the Holy City… But more severe cases can lead otherwise normal housewives from Dallas or healthy tool-and-die manufacturers from Toledo to hear the voices of angels or fashion the bedsheets of their hotel rooms into makeshift togas and disappear into the Old City babbling prophecy.

via The Jerusalem Syndrome: Why Some Religious Tourists Believe They Are the Messiah | Wired Magazine | Wired.com.

Renoux indicates that Japanese media, magazines in particular, often depict Paris as a place where most people on the street look like stick-thin models and most women dress in high-fashion brands such as Louis Vuitton, while in reality French high-fashion brands are mainly for foreign consumers, and the French population are far more overweight than the Japanese population.

via Paris syndrome – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

She’s Everywhere, and Nowhere

Audrey Munson

Image via Wikipedia

I originally wrote this in 2007, but have since revised and updated some of the remarks.

Audrey Munson was a model and an actress who rose to fame in the years before World War I. She was so popular as a model with well-known artists of her time that she earned the nickname American Venus.

There are several statues in New York City that are modeled after Munson, probably more than any other woman. Indeed, I became interested in Munson when I made an effort to determine exactly how many statues in New York she posed for. And I am not the only one interested in the subject. Diane Rozas and Anita Bourne Gottehrer, the authors of “American Venus: The Extraordinary Life of Audrey Munson, Model and Muse,” link her to 22 statues. Andrea Geyer, an artist and the author of “Queen of the Artists’ Studios: The Story of Audrey Munson,” says 17. The Wikipedia article on her life? Nineteen. A 2007 New York Times story? Fifteen.

My thinking has evolved on this, but I don’t think it’s possible to iron out a final, accurate number. Researching the Web only goes so far; the answers.com article on Munson, for instance, is a copy of the Wikipedia article. News reports of the day are notoriously inaccurate; and Munson herself gave several interviews in the early 1920s in which she contradicts things she has said, not to mention known details of her life. Never mind that the whereabouts of several of the statues are unknown.

I have included below a complete list, so far as I can tell, of all the statues in New York City linked to Munson. I have noted in shorthand which sources credit Munson as the model, including those cases in which I have an opinion, and added some commentary.

A note about our sources.

  • “American Venus,” by Rozas and Gottehrer is a very readable and somewhat meandering recounting of Munson’s life. But the authors make no attempt, that I can discern, to list the statues she modeled for. The book mostly links Munson to monuments in oblique ways, by simply publishing photos of the statues.
  • “Queen of the Artists’ Studios” by Geyer is more of an experience than a book about Munson’s life. It is essentially a montage of ink streaks and historical news clippings and photographs, buttressed by four essays. Two are about Munson, or rather writers’ experiences of her. One is about Munson’s role in film. And the fourth is about the hospital where Munson spent most of her life. Geyer, for all her artistic license, has produced what seems to be a well-researched map of Manhattan locating the statues she says Munson posed for.
  • Wikipedia is, well, Wikipedia.

Three Graces (1907) by Isidor Konti in the lobby of the Hotel Astor, which was demolished in 1967. This is probably the first public monument she modeled for. She would have been 16 at the time and every account of her life says that she was discovered by a photographer on the streets of New York City when she was 16. Geyer does not include this on her map, but that is probably because no one knows where this piece ended up. A New York Public Library researcher told me that a monograph of Konti’s work, published in 1974, lists the sculpture’s whereabouts as unknown. …Konti’s work might be a similar to a statue that resides at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a second-century copy of an older Greek work. Venus: Yes; Queen: No; Wikipedia: Yes; Me: Yes.

Duty and Sacrifice, the figures flanking the Firemen’s Memorial (1912) by Atillio Piccirilli at 100th and Riverside Drive in Riverside Park. The parks department credits Munson as the model in its signage and online database. Venus: Yes; Queen: Yes; Wikipedia: Yes; Me: Yes.

Civic Fame (1913) by Adolph Alexander Weinman atop the Municipal Building in Manhattan. The city’s Web site credits Munson as the model for this sculpture. Venus: Yes; Queen: Yes; Wikipedia: Yes; Me: Yes.

The figure of Columbia atop the U.S.S. Maine monument (1913) by Piccirilli at the southwest corner of Central Park, opposite Columbus Circle. Wikipedia says Munson was the model for the figure at the monument’s base, too. Venus: Yes; Queen: Yes; Wikipedia: Yes; Me: Yes.

The figure in the pediment (1914) over the porte-cochère of the Frick Collection by Sherry Edmundson Fry, 70th and Fifth. A Frick reference librarian confirmed this for me in December 2007. Wikipedia, “American Venus,” and “Queen” all say Munson also was the model for a second pediment at the Frick. Venus: Yes; Queen: Yes; Wikipedia: Yes; Me: Yes.

The figure in the Ida and Isidor Straus Memorial (1915) by Augustus Lukeman at 106th and Broadway. (It’s worth noting that Straus is commonly misspelled on the Web.) The likeness of Munson in this statue is particularly striking. The parks department credits Munson as the model in its signage and online database. Venus: Yes; Queen: Yes; Wikipedia: Yes; Me: Yes.

Spirit of Industry (1916) by Carl Augustus Heber at the Manhattan Bridge Plaza in Manhattan. Venus: Yes; Queen: Yes; Wikipedia: Yes; Me: Yes.

Pomona, or Abundance, in the Pulitzer Memorial Fountain (1916) by Karl Bitter and Konti at the southeast corner of Central Park, 59th and Fifth. Bitter was run over by a car and killed while working on the statue; his assistant, Karl Gruppe, and a contemporary, Konti, finished up for him. Barry Popik, a writer and historian, told me in an e-mail message that his research showed that Bitter used the model Doris Doscher and Konti used Munson, so that the statue’s face is Munson’s and the body is Doscher’s. Venus: Yes; Queen: Yes; Wikipedia: Yes; Me: Yes.

Brooklyn and Manhattan (1916) by Daniel Chester French, originally installed on the Brooklyn side of the Manhattan bridge but now flanking the remodeled entrance to the Brooklyn Museum. Venus: Yes; Queen: Yes; Wikipedia: Yes; Me: Yes.

Memory (1919) by French at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 86th and Fifth. Munson apparently was the model for dozens of pieces at the Met, including “Descending Night,” a small figure less than two feet tall not included in this list but included in everyone else’s. Venus: Yes; Queen: Yes; Wikipedia: Yes; Me: Yes.

Mourning Victory (1919) by French inside the Met. This piece is a copy of the Melvin Memorial at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Mass. Venus: Yes; Queen: Yes; Wikipedia: Yes; Me: Yes.

Peace (1900) by Bitter, in the facade of the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court, near Madison Square. “American Venus” and “Queen” each say Munson was the model for this statue. But she was born in 1891 and, according to New York’s Department of Citywide Administrative Services, all of the courthouse’s sculptures were in place by 1901, when she would have been 10 years old. Venus: Yes; Queen: Yes; Wikipedia: No; Me: No.

Alma Mater (1903) by French on the campus of Columbia University, 118th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam. Geyer put this on her map, but allowed that it might be the actress Mary Lawton. It probably was Lawton. Munson would have been 12 at the time. Venus: No; Queen: Yes; Wikipedia: No; Me: No .

America (1904) in the Four Continents Group by French on the facade of the Customs House in lower Manhattan. “American Venus” says Munson was used for Asia and Europe, too. “Queen of the Artists’ Studios” says Munson was the model for all four continent statues. I have my doubts. Munson was only 8 when French won the commission for this piece in 1899. He began work on the statues in 1903, and they were all in place in 1907, when the building was completed and Munson’s career was just beginning. Popik, the writer and historian, told me in an e-mail message that, in press interviews during the 1920s, Munson claimed to be the model French used. Venus: Yes; Queen: Yes; Wikipedia: No; Me: No.

Beauty (1916, plaster; 1921, marble) by Frederick MacMonnies, a monumental niche in the New York Public Library, 40th and Fifth. A researcher at the library told me that it would be best to remain “agnostic” on the question of whether Munson was the model for this statue. MacMonnies was in France when he worked on the sculpture, 1909-1915, a time when Munson was at her busiest as an actress and model. Munson was in California with her mother in 1916 and 1917. Venus: Yes; Queen: Yes; Wikipedia: Yes; Me: No.

Page 26 of Venus quotes a 1913 article from The New York Sun, which mentions another monument: “Up on Riverside Drive, Allen George Newman’s fountain ‘Music of the Water’ shows another pose of this young woman.” The facing page in Venus has a photocopy of the article, which includes a picture of the fountain. But exactly where this is (or was) is a mystery to me. Venus: Yes; Queen: No; Wikipedia: Yes; Me: Yes.

There are other works of art in New York widely credited to Munson, but because my Web site is focused on statues, I am setting these aside. They include:

The figure over the proscenium (1913) at the New Amsterdam Theater. This is definitely Munson, but it’s a painting, not a statue. Venus: No; Queen: No; Wikipedia: Yes.

Figure on doors of the Greenhut and John W. Gates mausoleums, possibly at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. In April 2008, I was contacted by a woman who said a member of her family, a model who was known as Alberta Ludbrook, was used as the model for the figure on the Gates tomb. Venus: Yes; Queen: No; Wikipedia: Yes.

Figure in the Women’s Health Protective Association fountain, Riverside Drive and 116th, by Bruno Lewis Zimm. This also is a bas relief. Venus: No; Queen: Yes; Wikipedia: No.

Audrey Munson was born June 8, 1891, in Mexico, N.Y. She was apparently discovered by a photographer walking on a New York street. She soon became a sought-after model, was a widely published writer of columns and essays and eventually starred in four silent motion pictures. Her film career waned, and her modeling career was reportedly torpedoed by a spurned lover. Munson eventually tried to commit suicide. She spent the final 65 years of her life in a mental institution, and died Feb. 20, 1996.