December 27, 2011

Wisdom, anyone?

I haven't been that high on a coffee table book in a long time. They're often heavy but thin, if you know what I mean. But this year I'm really enjoying WISDOM: The Greatest Gift One Generation can Give To Another, by Andrew Zuckerman. I was a bit worried when I cracked this tome open; the sap potential was high. I ordered it on a hunch, because I loved Zuckerman's book, Music.

But when I flipped it open I knew I was in for a fascinating read. The interviews are thoughtful and generous. This is a book to be savored. For generations.  I plan to gift it to my godchildren.  But this copy is going to be mine for a while before I let it out of my hands.

December 8, 2011

In Search of a Silent Night

Dreaded newscasts and endless loops of Christmas jingles (you know, that tinny, badly arranged, flat, featureless cacophony of sound) you hear in all the public places, has me longing for John Cage’s Silent Prayer, “a piece of uninterrupted silence” that he intended to sell to Muzak as “an attempt to break through the din of mid-century American culture . . . and to present the beauty that comes out of stillness.”

While Cage didn’t complete Silent Prayer, we do have 4’33" (that is four minutes and 33 seconds of an orchestra not playing anything).  
How much more delightful it was to sit after dinner and compile my winter reading list.  A few chocolates, glass of mulled wine and a CD playing 4’33”. Bliss.

To whit, the pile (you ask for it):

The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe
Andrew O’Hagan
“Marilyn took me everywhere.  We had a lot of fun going up and down the avenues. . . . If she brought out the actor in me then it might be said that I brought out the philosopher in her.”
So the narrator Mafia Honey (Maf, for short), a Maltese terrier given to Marilyn Monroe in 1960 by her friend Frank Sinatra. 

Epitaphs to Remember: Remarkable Inscriptions from New England Gravestones
Janet Greene

This is a surprisingly funny little book comprised of over 200 inscriptions, dating from the seventeenth century to the mid-1950’s it offers a unique look at our culture’s perspective on life and death.  For those of us who’ve been known to traipse around old cemeteries on sunny afternoons, this book is a must-have.

97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement
Jane Ziegelman

Jane Ziegelman set out to tell the remarkable true story of the Age of Migration in America from the intimate perspective (on the food prepared in the cramped kitchens) of five families of different ethnicity's-German, Irish, German Jewish, Russian-Lithuanian Jewish, and Italian-all occupied the same tenement building in New York’s Lower East Side sometime between 1863 and 1935.  This read will be a delectable combination of cultural and culinary history.

The Lost German Slave Girl: The Extraordinary True Story of Sally Miller and Her Fight for Freedom in Old New Orleans
John Bailey

The Question of Sally’s identity and right to be free was brought to trial, ensnaring the best legal minds in Louisiana, the cream of New Orleans society, and the sizable German immigrant population.  Over the course of several months, the drama and tension generated by the case captivated the entire South.  This is a first-rate thriller, only more amazing for being true. 
Clive’s recommendation

The Gardens of Kyoto
Kate Walbert
“I had a cousin, Randall, killed on Iwo Jima. Have I told you?”

The story begins with Ellen’s affectionate relationship with her pensive cousin Randall, who, as a teenager, is killed in World War II.  Shortly after Ellen receives a package that includes the boy’s diary and his most treasured book, The Gardens of Kyoto. What she discovers within each volume affects her profoundly as she comes of age in 1950’s America.

Whether your holiday is Christmas, or another, or none at all, I have suggested for you the words—and the silences—that may bring you joy.

December 5, 2011

La Joueuse d'echec (Bertina Henrichs)

 & Queen to Play (Caroline Bottaro)

Bertina Henrichs, born in Frankfurt, has lived in France for over 15 years. Following studies in literature and cinema, she became a scriptwriter of documentaries and fiction. Her fascination for the light and colour of the Greek isles, which she's visited many times, makes for the great authenticity of the story. La Joueuse d'échecs, her first novel, was written directly in French. The author finds it a nice irony that her Sorbonne thesis was on the subject of writers who adopt a new language in exile!
Eleni is a chambermaid in a tourist hotel on the island of Naxos. Having reached her forties, her dreary life revolves almost solely around her work, the car mechanic husband she married at eighteen, her two adolescent children and a childhood friend. She finds her only place of freedom in the rooms she cleans every morning and in the objects she sees there through which she dreams of another life... One day by accident she knocks over a chess piece of a match in progress. And unexpectedly her life is turned upside down: to the great displeasure of her family and the dumbfounded inhabitants of the island, she develops a passion for this game. Little by little, Eleni grows ever closer to emancipation and self-awareness.  An unexpected portrait of an ordinary woman and a novel that could adapt beautifully to screen.

À propos-
Female liberation can take many forms, and the route Caroline Bottaro navigates in her debut directorial effort is Queen to Play . . . (Sandrine Bonnaire, Kevin Kline)
. . . from the obvious feminist fable it could have been, Bottaro managed one that is most subtle and evocative.

November 26, 2011

Margin Call(ed)

A broker's demand on an investor using margin to deposit additional money or securities so that the margin account is brought up to the minimum maintenance margin. Margin calls occur when an account value depresses to a value calculated by the broker's particular formula.

So your firm is leveraged 40 to 1. And its holdings are shaky - those damned European investments. Regulators show up to make sure you have enough capital to be legit. You’re ready for them -the day before, you moved funds to cover yourself.
But now Europe sinks further. Your investments there are worth a fraction of the $6.3 billion bet you made. Frantically, you try to sell parts of the firm, then the whole thing. Meanwhile, your clients are pulling their money as fast as they can --- to slow the drain, you stop wiring funds and start mailing checks.
Nothing works. You declare bankruptcy. Government agents swoop in - and can’t locate $600 million in client funds. Crazy! Where did $600 million go?
You resign. Because that’s what CEOs should do when it gets this bad. (Magnanimously, you refuse to take the $12.1 million payout specified in your contract. The checks you mailed to your customers? They bounced.) Now you must decide whether to testify at a government hearing or take the Fifth Amendment, a virtual admission of guilt.
A movie plot?  Not at all. This is what happened in 2008, just with mortgage-backed securities as the falling knife and Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns as the first domino's. But yes, this is, in broad strokes, the story of “Margin Call.”
It’s also a story in the news -and the CEO I’m talking about here is Jon Corzine, former Governor of New Jersey and onetime CEO of Goldman Sachs.
I don’t imagine Corzine would like to see a movie about his company, but you might - and you can stream it, or see it at a local theatre where it is still playing.
Why see “Margin Call”? As the poster says, “Something big is going down.” Sadly, financial powerhouses can take you down with them; it’s good to know how these things happen. And they will happen again.
The first great thing about this nail-biter of a movie is that there are no easy-to-spot villains. Terrible things happen -this is Wall Street, where clients have become counter-parties and it makes perfect sense to bundle a bunch of crap, tie a ribbon around it and hawk it, even as you are selling it short in the firm’s account because you know it’s going to crash and burn. So what? The counter-parties are adults. No one held a gun to their heads. That’s why, in the preview, I see the key line as Jeremy Irons saying, as only he can, “That we may survive.”
Stanley Tucci, Kevin Spacey, Simon Baker and Demi Moore all have their roles to play. But the overview belongs to Irons, as the head of the firm:
“So you think we might have put a few people out of business today. That it’s all for naught. You’ve been doing that every day for almost forty years, Sam. And if this is all for naught, then so is everything out there. It’s just money; it’s made up. Pieces of paper with pictures on it so we don’t have to kill each other just to get something to eat. It’s not wrong. And it’s certainly no different today than it’s ever been. 1637, 1797, 1819, ‘37,’ 57, ‘84, 1901, ‘07, ‘29, 1937, 1974, 1987- and whatever we want to call this. It’s all just the same thing over and over; we can’t help ourselves. And you and I can’t control it, or stop it, or even slow it. Or even ever-so-slightly alter it. We just react. And we make a lot of money if we get it right. And we get left by the side of the road if we get it wrong. And there have always been and there always will be the same percentage of winners and losers. Happy foxes and sad sacks. Fat cats and starving dogs in this world. Yeah, there may be more of us today than there’s ever been. But the percentages - they stay exactly the same.”
Grown-up talk. For grown-ups (and their smarter kids). So gather the clan, skip the shopping, and watch closely. Because this is going to happen again.

November 13, 2011

Book Beautiful - "it's a good thing" ツ

Bookshelf Set Book covers from- Book City Jackets – are portable pieces of personal expression and represent a modern take on a childhood classic. The covers are printed at a small press in downtown New York, made from recycled paper and sized to fit almost any book.
Whether you keep them pristine, mark them with your message to the world or use them as a space to record your private thoughts, Book City Jackets make any book your own.

“Fold-to-Fit” any book.
Keep your covers clean or mark them with your message.

Bookshelf includes: “fiction”, “non-fiction” and “favorite”.

October 16, 2011

England, England.

This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden – demi-paradise -
This fortress built by nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea…
—Richard II, Act II, scene i

London, that great cesspool into which all the loungers of the Empire are irresistibly drained.
—Arthur Conan Doyle

Sir Jack Pitman has a big dream.  Tired of seeing England’s once-proud heritage degraded, he’s going to rebuild it in his own way.  But not out of altruism—his version of England will be aimed at wealthy tourists who want the best of England: 30- minute journeys between Stonehenge and Buckingham Palace, hearty rustic folk building hayricks by day and dispensing wisdom and understated humor by night, aerial battles between the RAF and the Luftwaffe capped by presentations of medals by the King and Queen.  No loungers from the former Empire need apply.
Pitman and his creative team face a few obstacles.  The three most important elements of real estate, and of empire building, are location, location, location.  Sir Jack wants a conveniently placed, quintessentially English locale without the nuisances of representative government.  What better place than the Isle of Wight?  Easy enough to sway the locals, puff up the island council to royalty, and declare independence from Old England.  And if a little clause makes Sir Jack the owner and final authority over the whole island, well, it’s only honorary, and he’d never actually exercise it.

I know why the sun never sets on the British Empire:  God would never trust an Englishman in the dark.
—Duncan Spaeth

But what aspects of England and English history will the island portray?  The female-free (and possibly homosexual) band of Merrie Men in Sherwood Forest?  The Magna Carta in period or Modern English?  The witty Samuel Johnson or the foot fetishist with atrocious table manners?  Nell Gwynn as the underage mistress of the King or the wholesome seller of oranges?  And what do you do when the re-enactors begin take their roles a little too seriously?

I like the English. They have the most rigid code of immorality in the world.
—Malcolm Bradbury

But the famously devoted family man has a secret and bizarre sexual predilection which proves his undoing.  Paul, his Idea Catcher and Martha, his Resident Cynic, discover his secret and use it to take over the England, England project and steer it in a direction they prefer.  Along with the King and Queen, Sir Jack is relegated to occasional public appearances tightly controlled so he doesn’t go off message.
Martha is our guide to the entire bizarre project.  Her job is to use her cynicism to search out England, England‘s weak spots and force others to answer her objections.  And when she takes over the top spot, her jaded view of humanity lets her govern the project as a benevolent but absolute monarch, but her own blind spot is lurking.

There’ll Always Be An England —Vera Lynn
…even if it’s in Hollywood. —Bob Hope

Barnes’ characters are complex—even the buffoonish Sir Jack has more to him than his Falstaffian exterior might suggest.  Martha’s cynical exterior hides an idealistic core doomed to constant disappointment, which feeds her skepticism.  And, when all the manipulating, backbiting, treachery, violence, and legalisms are over, England, England emerges with the kind of secret history that really forges a cultural identity.
The story does end on a redemptive note, even if it plays into nostalgia for an England that probably never existed.  But it is Barnes’ satire of English society and of the world’s perception of the English that really make the book a fun read.

Mating in Captivity-(a thin book).

To love is to merge. Wrong. Merging is what happens when you see the other as your security. That's death to sex. Good sex requires a spark. A spark requires a gap. Cross the gap, feel the sizzle. No gap? The best you can hope for is a cuddle. ツ

“At the time of the Clinton affair, I was intrigued at how adultery could become a matter of national political agenda in the U.S. Why was it, I wondered, that this country seemed quite tolerant of divorce, and rather intolerant of infidelity, when the rest of the world had traditionally been more tolerant of infidelity and less so of divorce? Around the same time I was at a national conference on couples therapy and, there too, I was struck by the overemphasis on pathology and the lack of any mention of the words pleasure or eroticism when addressing a couple's sexual life. The claim that sexual problems were always the result of relational problems and that one should fix the relation and the sex would follow, did not bear true for me. I saw loving, caring couples whose desire was flatlined, not resulting from a breakdown in intimacy. So I began to question a host of assumptions pertaining to sexuality and intimacy in long-term relations that were spoken as truths; they seemed unexamined to me.”

So here is Esther Perel to suggest that we, men and women alike, have it wrong. Good sex doesn't have to end when the hormones cool. Lust doesn't have to devolve into companionship.  And as for intimacy in the bedroom, a little goes a long way.

Not for Perel a how-to book of ridiculous exercises you can practice to rekindle the passion you once knew. If she had her way, you'd never consult a manual again. You might, however, write a dirty letter about all the hot things you'd like to do to your partner-or that you'd like done to you. Or maybe you should start two e-mail accounts just for the sexual dialogue between you and your mate.

But she's the mother of your child!

But he's the guy who only gets his kicks from online porn!

Perel has heard all that. Many times. She's not fooled underneath those smart rationalizations are hearts that still want to believe in hot sex with someone you know. The problem, she says, lie in the unspoken assumptions of most marriages.

 “There is no such thing as 'safe sex,'” she writes. Sex requires mystery, excitement, uncertainty. Which means not knowing everything about your partner. You find that threatening?  You'd find it less so if you stopped equating intimacy with sex.

Here's a radical thought: don't do everything together. Cultivate your own set of friends. Create differences, not affinities. “Ruthlessness is a way to achieve closeness” - ponder that for a while.
She hates the verb “have” when used in relationships for her no one “has” anyone. Relationships are negotiations, not assumptions. 

Eroticism, she says, is “sexuality transformed by the imagination.”  So, start dreaming.  There's a big payoff: “Nurturing eroticism in the house is an act of open defiance.”

It is not by flaying our erotic impulses into banality and duty that we fortify them. It is sometimes by averting our eyes that we see most clearly, and feel most strongly. The 1960s freed us to look squarely at sex. Our own decade might free us to look at something else besides -to look not more, but deeper.

August 20, 2011

A word then.

“To acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself a refuge from almost all of the miseries of life.” ~Somerset Maugham

As of late I started to break out in hives every time my phone rang.  I used to welcome phone calls but this summer has brought an inordinate amount of calls concerning the funereal dates of friends and the horrific untimely death of those too young.  The world is great until a friend is shot to death or a much admired child dies of leukaemia.  Death is an invitation we shall all receive, but hopefully in our sleep. It is the burden of those who awake to mourn, to appreciate life and make the best of the day that we are given. 
So why this macabre lead-in to a book?  Because, Skin and Other Stories by Roald Dahl, gave me the ‘momentary’ thrill of revenge.  For how would you get rid of a murder weapon without causing suspicion?

And where would you hide a diamond where no one else would think of looking? What if you found out that the tattoo on your back was worth over a million dollars? You will discover that just about anything is possible in a Roald Dahl story, and there are eleven of his very best.

July 30, 2011

If we want things to stay as they are,...

...things will have to change.

Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard was well-known by the time Luchino Visconti began working on his film of the same name. The book appeared in Italy in 1958 and was subsequently translated into many languages - a German version can be seen lying around in Visconti’s section of the film Boccaccio’70, released in 1962. Visconti's 1963 version of the novel features Burt Lancaster in a great visual performance. The music, cinematography and production design are superb, but it is appropriate this time around to note the special contribution of its prolific screenwriter. One of Visconti's regular screenwriters, Suso Cecchi D'Amico died last year at the age of 96 after collaborating, credited and uncredited, on many of the best Italian films. She suggested dropping the novel's modern epilogue and persuaded Visconti to conclude with the extended society ball in Palermo, which proofed one of the most remarkable and influential sequences in movie history.

The book and the new remastered Criterion Collection DVD release had been in my tbr/v stack. For various reasons, one, Sicily is on my agenda this fall, two, political posturings have made me look at both with renewed interest (the more things change...).  I had neither read the book nor seen the movie since their original publication/release.

I love the Italien version of the remastered DVD, which I viewed without subtitles, but with the excellent commentary from Peter Cowie.
The American version of the movie demonstrates perfectly the different sensibility.

 The fortunes of the two works have become entwined, so that they now seem commentaries on each other in different mediums, rather than the source for a film and the adaptation of a novel. Many have remarked on the affinities between Lampedusa and Visconti, with their interest in fading splendor and dying worlds, and there is no doubt that the film is intimately faithful to the spirit of the novel - even when it shifts time lines and details of dialogue, and inserts a whole battle sequence.

A movie audience, Visconti said in an interview, needs to see Garibaldi’s men fighting the soldiers of the Bourbon government in the streets of Palermo, and to see Tancredi Falconeri, the nephew of the prince of Salina, fighting alongside the revolutionaries, in order to perceive what is at stake - the disruptive power of the historical conjuncture and the real risk Tancredi is running as the old order is overturned and a new Italy is born.

Both novel and film are ironic, elegiac, stately, and dedicated to a luxurious mourning of a lost past. But the loss and the past are different in each case, and the film is a good deal more political than the novel and more political than it may look at first sight. The most magnificent moments in the book involve a movement that Visconti does not make, and that a film, perhaps, cannot make persuasively: the flash-forward in time, the long look at the future beyond the story currently being told. We learn, for example, that the days of the engagement of Tancredi to Angelica, the daughter of the scheming Don Calogero - a sequence of games and kisses played out in the dusty and abandoned rooms of the prince’s seemingly endless house at Donnafugata - were the best days of their lives, because they were a time of unsatisfied, and therefore ever present, desire, to be matched by nothing in their later live: “Those days were the preparation for their marriage, which, even erotically, was not a success; a preparation, however, in a way sufficient to itself, exquisite and brief; like those melodies that outlive the forgotten works they belong to.” The long view doesn’t destroy the short view, but it draws out its sheer fragility.

Visconti’s film memorably records this romance and lingers with the lovers in the old rooms of the vast and ancient house, but the director has nothing to say about their future failures: his eye is firmly on the present, on the allure of the couple, on Tancredi’s slightly too easy charm, on Angelica’s slightly too petulant beauty. The impecunious Tancredi, with the prince’s blessing, is marrying money; more than that, he is buying his way into a position of influence within the new Italy. In the novel, the prince thinks Tancredi’s behavior is a little “ignoble” but admires the young man’s grasp of historical reality and allows his affection for him to quiet his scruples. The film identifies less closely with the prince’s point of view-it is about him, so to speak, but not an endorsement of his thinking, and if he is its visual center, Tancredi is the focus of its most troubling questions. It is through the modulations of Tancredi’s position, through his charm and his ruthlessness, that we understand the subtle political register of the film.

The convergence and divergence of Lampedusa and Visconti are particularly interesting here. Lampedusa was a Sicilian aristocrat deeply skeptical about progress; Visconti was a northern aristocrat deeply dedicated to it. But Lampedusa was too thoughtful a conservative to believe he could simply cling to the past, and Visconti was too intelligent a radical to believe all changes were for the better.

Burt Lancaster brings to the role of the prince an extraordinary physical presence and a remarkable sense of the difficulty of growing old and losing political prestige - his graceful waltz with Angelica in the film’s fabulous ball scene, tenderly photographed by Giuseppe Rotunno, is the last dance of a whole social order. In this interpretation of the prince, we see high style and perfect grace, but in the end, he is leaving this world and we are still living in it. Some critics have felt that the film is too much about the twentieth century, rather than the nineteenth - intimately, if indirectly, concerned with Italy’s relation to Europe as a whole in the early 1960s, with that later version of a conflict between a modernizing present and a vanishing past. Visconti himself, however, doesn’t make the distinction. He said that, throughout the making of the film, he asked himself whether the opportunistic Tancredi, if he had been born later, would have become a fascist. This is a question, not an answer; a fear, not an accusation. Tancredi’s charm and style are real, as is his deep affection for his uncle. But the question clearly haunts the whole film. The query is posed most sharply through a sequence of cuts and juxtapositions, as befits a great movie. As the prince says good-bye to Chevelley, the representative of the parliamentary government of the united Italy, who has offered him a place in the newly constituted Senate - he has politely refused - he agrees that changes are coming but says they will be for the worse. “We were the leopards, the lions,” he says. “Those who will take our place will be jackals, hyenas.” Dismissive enough, but the prince goes on: “And all of us-leopards, lions, jackals, and sheep-we’ll go on thinking ourselves the salt of the earth.”
Chevelley’s coach leaves and the next shot is a hot Sicilian countryside, with laborers vigorously digging. Over this image, we hear the rising sounds of an orchestra, and the next shot takes us to an elaborate ball in a palace in Palermo. The implication is that once the leopards and the jackals have started mingling, it will be hard to tell who is who. It’s clear that Sicily won’t change much, but the jackals will
certainly do well for themselves. More importantly, two extraordinary worlds will have died: the old order, represented (at its best) by the prince, and revolutionary Italy, represented by the now wounded and sidelined Garibaldi. At the ball, we hear of Garibaldi’s defeat by the soldiers of the very government he helped put in place, and of the promised execution of several of his supporters at dawn. A good thing, too, Tancredi, the ex-revolutionary, says: “It’s true, the new kingdom needs law and order.” He is lying on a sofa as he says this, the image of elegance and freedom from care. In the last images of the film, dawn has come, the ball is over. On his way home, the prince kneels in the street as a priest hurries past, taking the sacraments to a dying man. In a coach, Tancredi, Angelica, and her father look tired and happy as they hear the sounds of the firing squad close by. The prince rises and walks slowly away and vanishes into a dark alley.

“For things to remain the same, everything must change.” Spoken near the beginning of the film, the famous catchphrase simply suggests adaptation. For the prince and his class, a modified monarchy is better than a republic. As it echoes through the film, the phrase comes to mean something very different and gets close to the heart of Visconti’s criticism of modern Italy. It means that anything goes as long as we get to stay at the top of the political pile-whoever “we” are. This is not the prince’s world, but it is Tancredi’s. “You wouldn’t have spoken like that once,” one of the prince’s daughters says to Tancredi at the ball, when he talks so casually of the need for (and the cost of) law and order. “You’re wrong, my dear,” he answers. “I’ve always spoken like that.” And he has. He has changed his opinions and allegiances, but he has always spoken like a man who knows what’s necessary - for him and, as Visconti would say, for the thousands like him to be found in many times and many places.


June 27, 2011


Calling all female sybarites: Imagine spending your days taking luxurious baths and lounging on cashmere-covered divans; indulging in nectar, sweets and tobacco; and gossiping with a group of attractive and cultured women of many races. Such was the image of the pampered life in a Turkish harem.

For many Europeans, the East arrived with the Arabian Nights, a work first written by a French Arabic scholar named Antoine Gallard as a diversion, based loosely on oral tales that circulated throughout the Middle East and India. Published in the first decade of the 18th century, the Arabian Nights immediately became popular, and spread the image of the seraglio, or royal harem, as a place of unleashed sensuality and violence. In the “frame story” which sets the tales in motion, the King Shahrayar finds his wife bedding one of his black slaves and kills her. Convinced of woman’s essential lechery and deceit, he resolves to marry and deflower a virgin every night and then kill her in the morning. An intended victim, Sheherazade tells the tales to captivate the king and avoid meeting her fate. In 1841 Edward Lane, who wrote an early ethnography of Egyptian life, published a family-friendly version of the tales, excising much of the sex and taming some of the violence. Later in the century, Richard Burton produced another version, which he published privately for a circle of friends that included several reputed “libertines.” Burton embellished the sex and the violence, appending his own thoughts about perverse Arab erotics. In all of these versions, Kabbani notes, the women characters are mostly “demonesses, procuresses, sorceresses, witches. They are fickle, faithless and lewd. They are irrepressibly malignant, and plot to achieve their base desires in the most merciless manner imaginable.”

Thus were Arab women created. . . for literate European tastes.

In 1997 the travel writer Carla Coco published Secrets of the Harem, a large-format coffee-table style book which opens the harems of 19th century Ottoman Turkish rulers, “penetrating” the “complex organization.” Lavishly illustrated with paintings by European artists, the author sets out to describe “the welter of needs, desires, hopes and dreams of oriental women,” as seen in “the most voluptuous place in the empire.”

We learn about the Turks’ origin on the steppes of Central Asia: “The pleasures of galloping on horses, raping girls, getting drunk, shedding blood and other acts of violence were mingled with feeling of tolerance and brotherhood.”

Somehow, though, “women enjoyed both consideration and freedom,” which Islam greatly curtailed, giving them in its place the luxury and sensuality of harem life. The hookah-smoking concubine depicted in Bridgman’s Odalisque thus shows how “The soft Levantine lovemaking replaced the rough love games of the steppes.” The topless African and European dancers in Marinelli’s 1862 Dance of the Bee in the Harem illustrate a diplomat’s report that they wore “garments so thin that they allowed ‘all the secret parts’ to be revealed,” but only to a few eyes. Gerome’s 1859 Guardian of the Harem showed one of the “Ugly, deformed and fierce-looking black eunuchs from Africa,” among whom “homosexual love flourished.”

Inside the harem, “Lesbianism was rampant,” and women enjoyed “happy hours of oblivion” brought on by coffee, tobacco, and opium, which Nouy’s 1888 The White Slave illustrates as the nude woman exhales wisps of smoke.

Yet danger always lurked: a double-page spread of Cormon’s 1874 Jealousy in the Seraglio shows a naked dark-skinned woman peering with tensed joy at the bloody body of a white-skinned woman that an African eunuch has just knifed. The caption explains that, “The harem, a wonderland of delights and pleasures, could become a treacherous place for the unfaithful concubine who displeased her master.” Two intoxicated women reclining together in Giraud’s Interior of a Harem somehow illustrate that in the 16th century the reins of government “passed into the hands of the women and the palace slaves, who used their power recklessly and with great cruelty.” And somehow Delacroix’s 1834 Algerian Women, which depicts three rather glassy-eyed hookah-smoking women attended by a black servant, illustrates how in the 19th century, “new sentiments were stirring, and the women, despite their poor education, were quite capable of thinking in addition to loving and procreating. . .” The book ends with “the elegant, ethereal princesses” wandering about the Imperial Palace “like ghosts, dressed in the best of French fashions,” as an unnamed “new leader” transforms the empire into a republic and passes laws which “formally establish equality between men and women.”

Illustrated by documents of the period, old and new photographs, and masterpieces by Renoir, Delacroix, Matisse, and Ingres among others is a beautifully illustrated book filled with false and misleading information about the 'wonderful life' in the Turkish harem.

The harem remains a mystical place of pleasure, an enticing institution of Islamic culture, perceived to represent family and sexual traditions far different from those of the Western world.

June 23, 2011

Easy Reader – “Infamous”, not the movie, the players.

NEVER say never, that, perhaps, is the moral of Peter Bart’s film career.

There he was, a young New York Times reporter, married and a father, happy covering New York. Suddenly he was asked to report from Los Angeles. He had no interest. In the men’s room, he asked David Halberstam what would happen if he declined. “You probably end up holding a very small piece of what you’re currently holding,” Halberstam said. So off to LA went Bart.

Bob Evans was a young man about town. He was not an actor, but he kept getting big parts. Peter Bart wrote him up. Charles Bludhorn, head of Gulf + Western, read that piece and decided - you are sitting down? - that Evans should be head of production at the London office of Paramount Pictures. Six months later, Evans was running Paramount in LA.

This gave Bob Evans an equally bizarre idea: Peter Bart should quit the Times and help him run Paramount. “I wasn’t equipped for this job,” Evans said, “so I want someone at my side that is also unprepared.” That is how, in 1967, a 35-year-old reporter tumbled into the movie business.

Paramount was so feudal that Bart had to threaten a minion to get decent office furniture. Bludhorn interfered at every turn, approving big-budget projects that were clearly destined to die fast and hard. Evans worked hard by day, but at night, no one partied harder.

Ah, the ‘60s…

“Infamous Players: A Tale of Movies, the Mob, (and Sex)” mostly deals with the revolution that Bart and Evans made at Paramount - getting rid of legacy directors and bringing in new blood like Francis Coppola and Roman Polanski. Bart gives you the top floor view, and he is eloquent at that altitude. However, that is not why we read books about Hollywood, is it? We want the dish. There is plenty, some very controversial, details? read the book.

More dish? “Virtually every party, and they were almost nightly, had their standard offering and lines of cocaine and piles of joints," Bart writes. [I can attest to that.]

“I smoked the joints and welcomed occasional cocaine high after an arduous day, and the hot tubs became habitual as did the subsurface wandering hands." If you know anything about the movie business today, you know it is different now - most notably, that it is run by MBAs and accountants. This is, of course, what we want in our executive class.

Alas, the fact remains, in just seven years, Evans and Bart made "Rosemary's Baby," "Goodbye Columbus," "Catch-22," "Nashville," "The Conversation," "Love Story," "True Grit," "Chinatown" and "The Godfather."

You might ask, you cannot help but ask, what have the new guys made? And, just to close the circle, what are the names of the memoirs they have written?

June 6, 2011

First of the summer reads.

Coming Home, John Betjeman.

‘To each his private pleasure. Mine is looking at buildings. ’ So wrote John Betjeman shortly after WW II. From the evidence of the decades of writing collected in this companionable volume, he might have added ‘church-crawling’, Walter Scott novels, ‘the slow descent into English winter’, Paddington (‘the London equivalent of Brighton’), Australian flora, the films of Cecil B de Mille, ‘the romance of decay’, seaside towns, the history of England and, of cource, poetry. An affection for ‘what is beautiful…regardless of date [and] association’ irradiates Betjeman’s prose, whether his subject is St. Pancras station (very apropos) or the elegies of forgotten eighteenth-century parson poets.

Secrets of the Harem, Carla Coco

‘So much tedium, so much languishing’ is how Theophile Gautier described the life of the harem in 1853. His is one of any number of opinions expressed by Westerners about an institution that came to embody all the perceived luxury, corruption, and voluptuousness of the Ottoman Empire. In this book, Carla Coco explores in detail the life of the imperial harem in Istanbul, first at the Topkapi Palace, later at the Dolmabahce-its eleborate rituals and covert ambitions of the inmates of this court-within-a-court. The text is beautifully illustrated and includes paintings by Guardi, Ingres, Delacroix, Matisse and Renoir; all testify to a European fascination with the opulent licentiousness of the world of the Thousand and One Nights. Secrets of the Harem, dispelling myths, nevertheless increases the lure of the vanished seraglio, which remains enticingly elusive.

Farewell My Subaru: An Epic Adventure in Local Living by Doug Fine

Doug Fine tells the story of his move to a remote ranch in New Mexico, his solar plights and triumphs and his veggie oil conversion. Humorous and candid, the book is fun to read. Although peppered with interesting Eco-facts, it is much more a personal memoir than an educational manual.

Although I enjoyed all of Farewell, My Subaru, the best part was the Afterword, in which Fine details what he feels are the five (or six) most important conclusions he's come to. It reads like a mini-Manifesto and is laced with great suggestions for demanding change of the people we keep in business.

This book is probably not a book for anyone wishing to learn more, nor is it likely to be a keeper, but if you're looking for a light read or a bit of inspiration from the library, you might enjoy Farewell, My Subaru by Doug Fine.

Kay Thompson: From Funny Face to Eloise, a biography by Sam Irvin. I've always wanted to know more about the enigmatic Miss Thompson, star of cabaret, movie musicals, and authoress of the famed Eloise at the Plaza series and, apparently, one of the great (and more complicated) creative characters of the twentieth century. Now that Mr. Irvin has come out with his well-received book, I have my chance.

I purloined Wendy Burden's Dead End Gene Pool from Clive. The book provides a window into the world of inherited wealth and storied privilege, it is also a rollicking good read and at times darkly amusing in the description of a world that by the time the author arrived on the scene had gone seriously awry.

Past Imperfect by Julian Fellowes, the author of the delightful Snobs and best known for the screenplay to Gosford Park.  I do relish this man's prose.  I am only several pages into it, and enjoying it immensely.

P.S. A heads-up readers, Google is improving our sites, so there are bound to be some hiccups.

June 5, 2011

"If you want a friend in this town, buy a dog."

Books by insiders about Washington once were discreet, scholarly, and somber. No more. The genre of Washington best-sellers has become an exotic combination of intimate gossip, trade secrets, self-justification, and revelations about the immorality of power.

Serve-and-tell tales have created a booming market for Washington nonfiction leaving New York and Hollywood behind as sources for insider gossip.

Stigma and stain have bested discretion and dignity. The result has been to raise public participation in a, mostly, inconsequential body of knowledge. This has lowered the level of trust and increased the hunger for new sensation.

Only yesterday, it seems, George Marshall and Dean Rusk refused to write their memoirs because they felt the relationship between the president and his secretary of state should be sacrosanct. Dean Acheson, the secretary of state from 1949 to 1953, waited sixteen years to write his memoirs in 1969 for what was then considered a staggering advance - $200,000.

When she was first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy tried to institute a signed, no memoirs pledge from White House staffers, but she was dissuaded from pressing the idea. Her nightmare of insider revelations would become an established genre, and she a part of the establishment, an editor at Doubleday.

Watergate was what whetted the public appetite for the new genre. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were not insiders, to be sure, but the next-best thing, great investigative reporters. When they laid bare the workings of power and helped force the resignation of a president, all restraints collapsed. No one questioned the fact of Richard Nixon on his knees praying with Henry Kissinger the night he decided to resign-only the propriety.

In the Reagan administration, the budget director David Stockman was the first to declare an open season on loyalty when he revealed the bankruptcy of supply-side economics in The Triumph of Politics. His advance of $2.3 million, including a $250,000 trust fund for his six-month-old daughter, set a precedent for Washington books.

Today it is a seller’s market for government employees hawking personal intimacies about the president and first lady to the highest bidder. Hot instant history commands astronomical advances – the greater the indiscretion, the higher the advance. Serve and betray has replaced kiss and tell. “Loyalty” is not a word used often in Washington these days. Rather, people love to quote Harry Truman’s apocryphal “If you want a friend in this town, buy a dog.”

Stockman’s impunity stirred the juices of greed and revenge. Michael Deaver’s Behind the Scenes, a defensive pastiche of anecdotes with little focus and a lot of mistakes, exploited the discrepancy between image and substance-a hallmark of the Reagan presidency. As a result, Washington books became obsessed with the mechanics of perception-the staging, the scripting, and the pulling of strings in this puppet show of power.

The avalanche of publications since then all qualify for what Rod MacLeish (a senoir Washington commentator) called “the breaking of the seal on the covenant of conduct and discretion.” The publishing of memoirs while the president is still in office has a debilitating effect on trust and discretion key elements of governing. When the covenant is broken, governance falters. People who write or ghostwrite such books while the president is still in office are either fools of scoundrels. Fools if they don’t understand the system, scoundrels if they do.

Still the quest for the next big disclosure goes on. And there all those new authors that came to town with President Obama…

Ms. Edna’s insiders list for DeDe.

For me, these books best express the intensity and complexity of how Washington works. The first four are “power books”, written by men who made history.

The others written by journalists and novelists capture the struggle for power and place in Washington, revealing the vanity and weakness of men amid the grandeur of their aspirations. Nobody has written the quintessential Washington novel yet, because in the nation’s capital reality transcends imagination; but, for me, Gore Vidal is the best, he has unlocked the emotions that accompany power.

Henry Kissinger, White House Years, Years of Upheaval and On China.

Harry McPherson, A Political Education

Richard Nixon, Six Crises and RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon

Tip O”Neill with William Novak, Man of the House

Tom Ross and David Wise, The Invisible Government

David Haberstam, The Best and the Brightest

Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, All the Presidents Men

Theodore White, The making of the President

Roderick MacLeish, A city on the River

Seymour M. Hersh, The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House

Allan Drury, Advise and Consent

Ward Just, The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert and Other Washington Stories

William Safire, Safire’s Political Dictionary

Gore Vidal, American Chronicle series

May 29, 2011

Intimate Impressions.

‘Could we ever know each other without the arts?'
"Nous connaitrions-nous seulement un peu nous-memes, sans les arts?" - Gabrielle Roy

There are artists who lead public lives – Rubens the diplomat, Picasso the showman – and others who keep themselves to themselves. Pierre Bonnard, whose paintings I came to see at the Musée d'Orsay, led an intensely private life in which we can only begin to participate through his art. His diaries give little away – shopping lists, observations on the weather, the odd aphorism. He lived simply in Paris and the country. His family did not even know until after his death in 1947 that he had been married to his companion Marthe de Meligny for twenty-two-years. His more wide-ranging subject matter was commissioned by patrons and publishers. When he painted for himself, he stuck close to home.
He was born in 1867 on the out outskirts of Paris, the young Bonnard trained as a lawyer but also enrolled in the Academie Julian and the painting section of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. After he failed his civil service exam, he became involved with a small group called the Nabis (the Hebrew words for prophets), led by Paul Serusier, and inspired by Gauguin.

The Croquet Game with its carefully composed patchwork of flat patterns is clearly derived from Japanese prints. The title Crepuscule, under which it was first exhibited, suggests an affinity with the symbolic poems of Mallarmé. Its decorative appeal confirmed the ambitions of the group not to be confined to easel painting but to branch out into producing panels for interiors, book illustrations, posters and theatre designs. Sharing studios, exhibition spaces and commissions from small magazine – notably La Revue Blanche – the Nabis thrived in the artistic climate of belle-époque Paris.

Despite waspish comments on his work from some of the older generation of Impressionists, Bonnard never really had to struggle to succeed. By the turn of the last century he was working with the playwright Alfred Jarry and receiving commissions for sets of lithographs from Ambroise Vollard. He visited museums in Spain, and the Low Countries, accompanied by Edouard Vuillard. He made trips to the South of France, staying at first with Maillol, then Manguin. In 1911, perhaps flush from the commissions of the great Moscow industrialist collector Ivan Morozov, he bought an 11 CV Renault. The next year, he declined the offer of the Légion d'Honneur.
What interested Bonnard was not the representation of life itself but the representation of how we perceive life. The depiction of objects in blurred and sharp focus, in thin and thick paint, and the shimmering representation of light, combined to recreate the sense of flux we experience on first scanning a scene. At his best, Bonnard could achieve an overall visual rhythm and unity, while at the same time leaving parts of the canvas mysteriously unresolved.

Significantly, he himself did not always know when paintings were finished, working on some for years and touching up others even after they were hanging in houses and galleries.

His art did not depend on direct observations but on contemplation. ‘I have all my subjects to hand,’ he said. ‘I go and look at them. I take notes. Then I go home. And before I start painting, I reflect, I dream.’ There is an elegiac feeling to many of his works, a Proustian savouring of sensations recalled. He lived with Marthe for nearly fifty years and her likeness appears in over 300 paintings., but there is no precise physical description and little sense of the her growing old. Sometimes she is peripheral to the main subject; sometimes her face is turned away. She is always self-absorbed, not engaged with the artist or viewer. Perhaps this was a reflection of the reclusive personality, exacerbated by chronic ill health – her prone immersion in the bath, which inspired some of Bonnard’s most haunting images, may have been a form of hydrotherapy.

But it also suited the artist to be separate, freed of the responsibilities of relationships to explore the ever-challenging gap between life and art.

May 27, 2011

Steal Away.

Willie Ruff took his French horn to Venice to record -solo -some of his favorite music, European classics, and Southern spirituals.

Willie Ruff? We are, most of us, sheltered from music that is off the well-worn commercial track, so we are forgiven for not knowing about this extraordinary musician and teacher. Now that you are here, please come to full attention, because this is one American treasure you really do not want to miss.

In 1947, Willie Ruff, born in northern Alabama, found himself stationed at Lockbourne Air Force Base near Columbus, Ohio. This elite base for black officers was quite the happening place - it had a full orchestra and two jazz bands. Happily, for the 16-year-old Ruff, one of those musicians was a jazz pianist, Dwike Mitchell. They started performing as a duo in 1955. They have celebrated a half century of playing together -a record for jazz collaborators.

Jazz probably offers more opportunity for personal expression than any American music, but it was too narrow for Willie Ruff. He went to Yale to study with composer Paul Hindemith and later became a Professor of Music there. He has traveled widely - he went to Africa to study the Pygmies' drum language -and has learned eight languages (before a trip to China, he taught himself Mandarin Chinese).

A few years ago, he got the idea of recording in the Venice cathedral that has been home to almost a thousand years of legendary music. (It now is a favored destination of more than 25,000 tourists a day, and its plaza is a must-visit for all romantics, which is perhaps why we see it regularly in commercials for diamonds.) Ruff and Venice were an ideal marriage of musician and setting.

The purity of Ruff's playing knocks you to your knees. It is not the technical mastery that is so powerful, it is the spiritual sincerity. This is not music: its prayer echoing in a stone chamber, a collaboration involving Ruff, the composers and the anonymous believers who built this cathedral.

There are a dozen short classical pieces, and then the CD takes a turn to the America South. "Were You There" seems almost spoken, and not because we happen to be familiar with the words. "Steal Away" starts with an extended, full-bodied note and then jumps an octave; who knew so few notes could have such great effect? "Go Down Moses" touches every emotion -sweet and shockingly sassy, almost as if Ruff were playing trombone, and then powerful and direct. This, you imagine, is how God told Moses what He wanted from him. Moreover, finally, "Give Me Jesus," which ends, fittingly, as the bells of St. Mark's begin to toll.

This is quiet, contemplative music -and, at the same time, it is incredibly exciting. It calms you and sharpens you at the same time. It makes you cry and brings you joy. Like ancient medicine, it works on you in ways you do not understand, but which you trust will heal you. Then it does.

Compliments of a fellow traveller, sweet sounds, and thoughts from the road.

I am reading...

  • scribble, scribble, scribble, Simon Schama
  • Julia's Cats, Patricia Barey and Therese Burson
  • London, Edward Rutherfurd
  • I'll Drink to That, Betty Halbreich