December 20, 2012

I wish for you…

“…The Power of Concentration.” (and, the littlest bit of sparkle).

December, another month of bad news and darkness all around us. It feels like the song of the season.  Darkness is not just about light, it’s also about weight. And these are heavy days.

As I look back on a fraught year, I see that, more often than not, I’ve sided with the poet who wrote “How bright a light there must be to cast so dark a shadow.” Little domestic moments are my sun; I revolve around friends who see through me (“blogging is just your hobby, your job is being annoying”) and yet, in their tough love way, cherish me. I see the compromises so many people must make to hang on; I’ve been lucky enough to have quiet days and doing challenging, satisfying work. And, far from least, there are our blogs.  I loathe message boards they attract trolls and troublemakers but I love the exchanges I have with some of you. You encourage me, prod me, correct me and, when I'm most pressed, write posts for me. Thank you all. My cup runneth over.

So here, then, is my short, short, short reading list for the end of the year:

It starts with Sherlock Holmes smoking his pipe. “When a new case is presented, Holmes does nothing more than sit back in his leather chair, close his eyes and put together his long-fingered hands in an attitude that begs silence. He may be the most inactive active detective out there. His approach to thought captures the very thing that cognitive psychologists mean when they say mindfulness.” Defined thus: Mindfulness is less about spirituality and more about concentration: the ability to quiet your mind, focus your attention on the present, and dismiss any distractions that come your way.

The implications are tantalizing. Mindfulness may have a prophylactic effect: it can strengthen the areas that are most susceptible to cognitive decline. When we learn to unitask, to think more in line with Holmes’s detached approach, we may be doing more than increasing our observational prowess. We may be investing in a sounder mental future — no matter how old we are.  The benefits-mental, physical, vocational - are huge. You want them.

Take good care. 

“Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes”, will be published by Viking in January 2013.

October 28, 2012

And...she'll do it again.

Full moon in Los Angeles, just the way I enjoy it, alas, I am in bed nursing a %&*+ relapse and plenty of time to read.

In an age of stupefying untruths and incredulous myths designed to fool, bedevil and deceive, it is beyond refreshing to discover an unrepentant figure in history who was not remotely cowered by her skirmishes with sin, shame, vice or deplorable conduct, but in fact, emboldened by her forcefulness to hold sway over the faint of heart.

Browsing, I came across this delightful read, what enlightenment it revealed!

Let’s take a moment to parse, shall we?

We all know that hard times can increase, and even accelerate, our own dismaying dreams of wealth, excess and the ridiculously obscene, particularly when it comes to those insufferable souls who flaunt it. Our fascination with, not only the identities, but the behind-the scenes lifestyles of the impossibly well heeled, can soothe our own troubled brows like no other induced stimulant — prescribed, casked, home-grown, Pyrex-baked or fermented — can.

Perhaps that explains why Norman Mailer’s long cherished Marilyn has been replaced atop the biography list with Aimée Crocker’s renowned tome And I’d Do It Again.

The skeptical might, legitimately, ask who is Aimée Crocker? And if we are to fawn over the lives of the inscrutably rich, why covet hers? Here is why, dear readers. She was a woman of means, not always a lady and never what you might call ‘proper,’ but she managed to acquire and surpass extravagance with flair, invincibility and unapologetic gusto. No shying, hypocritical, piously-pitied patsy she.

Aimée (formerly Amy) Crocker (1863-1941), was the daughter of Judge Edwin B. Crocker, legal counsel for the Central Pacific Railroad, Justice of the California Supreme Court and founder of the Crocker Art Museum. Her father was also brother to Charles Crocker, one of the “big four” California railroad barons. How blessedly lucky at birth can one be?

By the age of sixteen, the voluptuary vixen had already tumbled for a German prince “who had the most romantic saber scars,” and a Spanish toreador (“his touch left scars on my soul”).

To the great relief of San Francisco society columnists, Crocker’s wounds healed quickly and she went on to hula á deux with King Kalakaua of Hawaii, jitterbug through the jungles of Borneo with a bona fide head hunter, and hootchy-kootchy her way into the harem of the Rajah of Shikapur.

Following is the account of her memoir And I’d Do It Again as reviewed by Time magazine, September 28, 1936.
“The silliest of the new crop [is] a muddled concoction written with a lurid, Sunday-supplement archness, by a daughter of the wealthy and picturesque Crocker family of San Francisco, detailing her travels in the Far East, her love affairs with a Japanese baron, a Chinese tyrant, a Borneo chieftain and a four-yard boa constrictor named Kaa. Aimée Crocker first became aware of the lure of the Orient when, at the age of 10, she demanded that her mother buy her an elaborate Chinese bed that she saw in San Francisco. “Very young indeed was I.” she writes, “when the finger of the East reached out across the Pacific and touched me.” No sooner had the East put the finger on her than her mother sent her to Germany to be educated. There she fell in love with a German prince (un-named), and was taken to Madrid, where she fell in love with a bullfighter.

The impressionable young lady then returned to San Francisco, married, was almost killed in a train wreck on her honeymoon, got a divorce, hired a 70-ft. schooner and set out for the South Seas, scandalizing the missionaries in Hawaii on the way by taking part in an “orgy,” the precise details of which she does not disclose.”

Clearly, the adventurous Aimée, five times a bride, did not feel compelled to curtail her bed hopping during bouts of matrimony. Consequentially, her marriages tended toward the rather abbreviated variety. It is one thing, after all, for a sophisticated spouse to shut his eyes to a love triangle; another altogether to overlook a veritable polytetrahedron of passions. Even the most peripheral paramour, however, seldom proved completely problem-free–particularly the type who naively featured himself as leading man rather than best supporting actor. Ah well, that was simply the gaucheness of youth. “They all get over husbands, given half a chance,” giggled Crocker.

As to whether the quintet of unfortunate grooms (Including a Russian prince almost forty years her junior) who wed the wealthy wanderlust-victim ever got over her, Crocker wasn’t much concerned. “Husbands, at best, have little to do with ‘people,’” she sniffed. “I know, because I have had a certain number of them.”
Indeed, by the time she sat down to write her memoirs at the age of seventy-four, the cultured coquette had “had a certain number” of almost everything, including some truly bizarre bedfellows. Not that she deigned to bat an eye when a boa constrictor, the pet of a Hindu princess, slithered into her boudoir one night and proceeded to do as boas do, enveloping her body in a sun cross-species hug. In fact, it seems, Crocker found the reptilian rendezvous quite a turn-on: “He gave me a strange, tickling sensation that was, I confess, very enjoyable.”

Still, for the professional flirt, the conquest is vastly more compelling than its consequences. Another seduction successfully completed, Crocker was soon snoozing away as the smitten snake, still coiled about her, lay staring into the dark. “It was like being in the strong embrace of a man,” shrugged the world-weary party girl. “I was more than comfortable.”

While the beloved boa did not enter her life until she had returned to New York, its obsessiveness for her charms compelled it to remain “constrictively” close to her at all times. So entranced were the twosome, Miss Crocker was rumored to have thrown an elaborate dinner party in its honor. The dinner, according to all in attendance, was a great success, although an unidentified sleuthing snoop passed it to the newspapers, who quickly picked it up turning the story into, what else? That of an orgy. Characteristically, Miss Crocker tossed it off with a laugh, declaring “Things always happen to me.”

October 22, 2012

…utterly bloody terrifying.

I have prepared a plate of food, pot of coffee, and have locked the door because today I will wallow in the biting prose and meticulous observation of human foibles by Molly Keane.

Molly Keane was an Irish novelist and playwright. She loved booze, hunting and her dogs and a great chum of Elizabeth Bowen, her co-chronicler of the decline of the Anglo-Irish stately home and way of life.

Her work, in case this jewel of a writer has escaped your notice, falls pretty much into two separate time periods, separated by almost forty years. The first lot is pretty good if you fancy whiling away a few hours in a mannered pre-War drawing room from a time that died. The second lot are the real stunners.

Molly's adolescence was marked and profoundly affected by the Easter Rising of 1916 and the subsequent Black and Tan war, spelling the end of the iron ruling by the Anglo-Irish upper classes and the final death throes of that way of life. Her mother was remote and her father was weak - her unhappy childhood is revisited over and over again in both her early and later novels, which are peopled with wonderful characters that will stay with you.  She takes no prisoners - if you can't hunt and don't love horses, you have no place in her world. Tough, unsentimental and absolutely certain that drinkies and a dog to hand cure most ills. In this world of victims and blame culture, she renders me nostalgic for a period I never knew.

Her early career, in the 1930s and 40s was written under the pseudonym MJ Farrell, a name she spied on a pub hacking home from a hunt one afternoon. To her sort, writing was hideously déclassé, so her books and plays were kept a secret from the huntin' shootin' and fishin' types she lived among. Her plays even ran in the West End. She suddenly stopped writing in 1946 - partly because her husband, Bobby, the love of her life and father of her two young daughters, died suddenly and tragically at the age of 37; and partly because the crisis in the economy caused the sources of income from the Empire to dry up to almost nothing, spelling the end of that peculiarly upper class way of life. The huge houses fell into ruin over the ensuing decades, wardrobes and stables grew empty and the lower orders no longer knew their places.

For almost forty years, she kept her head down and her nose clean, then, suddenly, dripping wickedness and a rapier wit, Good Behaviour appeared in 1981. There are many of us who think she deserved the Booker prize for it. This was followed by Time After Time (1983) and Loving and Giving (1988).  These books are, bluntly, bleeding brilliant. The characters are observed with a heady cocktail of spite and intelligence. They are dark, often hopeless, always amusing. This is what happened to those glamorous people after the war. Lack of money, crippling snobbery, equestrian obsession and huge albatrosses of house around their increasingly wrinkly necks. Uppity servants, clouds of dogs to feed, tarnishing silver and fading albums. Beautifully observed and possibly the best accompaniment to a crackling fire on an autumn day. 

My abiding regret is that I never got to meet her. When I made a visit to Ireland, after her death, I mentioned this regret to my host a seriously tough old boy. He said, 'Ah, you are keen on her books?  I'm glad we never had to invite her over to meet you. She was utterly bloody terrifying.'

October 7, 2012

Never underestimate Dahling Alice

'Dahling Alice, this is all very well my deah, but is this really the right time to swan about, seducing all the neighbours, banging away at your ukulele, swathed in jewels and keeping a pet lion?'


Anja and Clive know the obsession I have with the mystery surrounding the murder of Lord Erroll and how unspeakably dull and hectoring I can become when the subject is mentioned.

Well, I just finished another set of books and in one titled The Temptress by Paul Spicer it would appear that dahling Alice (de Trafford, de Janzé, née Silverthorne a.k.a. the fastest gun in Gare du North) was the one who done did it (are you paying attention Sherlock?) - portrayed with glazed and dirty elegance by Sarah Mills in White Mischief.  

In the past week I have been dissecting the book. She was riddled with madness and style, abandoned her children, adopted a baby lion, etc., etc., etc. . . . as the King of Siam was wont to say.  The writing is diligent, but dull, and its accuracy I am unable to vouch for, but The Temptress made for interesting and entertaining reading.  Let’s call it Kenyan Rashomon.

I think that in his book Vertical Land, Frédéric de Janzé painted the most intimate portrait of Alice.

Alas, the telling of her fascinating story was long overdue.  Perhaps a more intuitive author will write another someday. 

Ah well, while residing in my happy valley the urban hipsters in our reading circle, blood sugar low because they've just had double maths, have worked themselves into an indignant lather because they weren't born in Kenya – “It’s were all the action is!”

In the meantime I’m putting on Alice’s hat; park my derriere on a veranda, minus the lion cub, and shout at the houseboy to bring me Sundowners.

Thank you Anja.

August 31, 2012

50 Shades of Grey . . .

. . . by DvH design

"Holy Cravat!" gasped Anaethesia, "That's just overwhelming....breathtaking...!!!"
"And all for you Anaethesia," growled Chris Blimey, charismatic, damaged and dangerous - the sort of Top Designer that knows his way around columns...a guy who put syncopation in his presentations.
Anaethesia's  Inner Goddess did a mental pole dance, before putting her back out and having to be helped to the divine pearl grey divan.
Yes, it was truly the biggest display of neck vanity Anaethesia had ever seen.
"And now", said Chris Blimey, "I am going to take you to the Taupe Room of Pain..."
"Oh no, not the client counseling room," groaned AnagoshthisnameistoolongcanIjustcallherNasty?, her Inner Goddess revolting gently and lighting up a fag.
"Yes," was Chris' masterful reply. "And there you will do something you have never done before…you will advise clients to choose from the 50 Shades of Grey...yes, suffer! Can I help it, that I have this tremendous Semi-Gloss Appeal?"
Yep, daahlings, almost everyone I encounter has read or is reading Those Books.  Except me, I must be getting on a bit.  I am resisting, out of sheer contrariness...I just enjoy reading reviews and listening to women discussing them:
"I was up to 4 am reading it."
"Some of those things are just not physically possible."
"I told my husband I was off to bed to read it - when he joined me ever hopeful, I was fast asleep with my reading glasses on."
"Ms Edna, sorry but you can't stand here with us, you have to go stand over there with the other people who have not read it;  yes, your client, oh, wait a minute, he's read it now too... oh my, Utah will never be the same."
I even spotted an updated Facebook page with "It's all coming to an end with Mr Grey."
And when I looked at Grain de Musc the perfume blog of Denyse Beaulieu, I found that she is currently working on the French translation of 50 Shades's everywhere!
I suspect my refusal to join the Greyfest is largely motivated by jealousy - I wish I had penned a bestseller. 
Alas, my designer’s porn* is going to be less erotic and more idiotic. ...
"I want you now, here, on the escalator," demanded Chris urgently.
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, there is just something about escalators."
"No, I mean, don't you mean "elevator" not "escalator"?" queried Anaethesia, breathlessly, "We don't want to get anything caught in the moving parts and the other shoppers might not like it…"
"You bourgeois fool you," blazed Chris, as they arrived at the second floor of the PDC.

*50 Strike-Offs Of Grey 
Designer At ... Large
The Perfected Grey

August 22, 2012

Movies for Foodies

It has been too hot to cook. 
Ergo the next best thing is; movies for foodies.
Eating as a focus in the movies is a fairly recent development.  The film, Julie & Julia, is an index to how far we have come, not only in our culinary evolution but in our cinematic one. It is hard to think of an American movie before the 1960s that concerned itself with food.  Not until the 1960s did food begin to be directly represented in movies. Julia Child’s televised approach to cooking seems to have augured the change.
Follwing are two of my all time favourite eating scenes-
From the 1963 movie Tom Jones. Running for over three minutes, the characters say nothing whilst slurping and caressing their way through increasingly luscious, symbolically aphrodisiac food.

Compared to today's movies, it seems a bit tame, but hasn't lost its sex appeal. Any movie that can keep the audience's interest for nearly four minutes with no one speaking is worth a look. The prototype for food porn!
And the diner scene in Five Easy Pieces (1970) which satirizes the rigid menu policies ("No Substitutions") of a few decades ago - those days when the establishment was more important than its customers.

Of course, neither of the older movies is so postmodern a meta-movie as Julie & Julia - being as it is "quintupply " about food, learning about food, writing about food, learning about food through the original writing about food and writing about it. Just what I said - quintupply!
So Bon Appetit! Here's to food in the movies.

1. Babette’s Feast
2. Eat Drink Man Woman – The Opening Scene
3. Spanglish – The World’s Greatest Sandwich
4. Like Water for Chocolate – The wedding cake
5. Soul Food
6. Chocolat – The Chocolaterie
7. Waitress
8. Volver
9. Tampopo – The Noodlemaster
10. Big Night – The Big Feast

July 23, 2012


Democracy don’t rule the world
You’d better get that in your head
This world is ruled by violence
But I guess that’s better left unsaid

~Union Sundown / Bob Dylan

Steven Spielberg is sometimes condescendingly described as a "family filmmaker," as if family were not one of the more profound aspects of our experience. His instinct for the family dynamic has offered intimacy to many a big-budget premise-the struggling single mother in ET., the couple teetering on divorce in Close Encounters, Indiana Jones's Oedipal struggles. In the 1990s there seemed to come a tipping point: family was no longer a metaphor for the action, it was the action. This became explicit as Spielberg grew ambitious for larger clans-the African slaves of Amistad, the six million Jews memorialized in Schindler's List, the lost generation of American men in Saving Private Ryan. Depending on whom you talk to, this was either an extension of his emotional reach or a grandiose exercise in cinematic grandstanding.

I should lay my cards on the table: I think Spielberg is one of the great popular artists of our time, and I base this upon the stupidity/pleasure axis I apply to popular artists: how much pleasure they give versus how stupid one has to become to receive said pleasure. The answer with Spielberg is usually: "not that stupid." His films bring pleasure where they most engage. Of course, when reviewing Munich, the cards the critic lays down are expected to be of another kind. As it happens, the film itself is neither "pro-Israeli" nor "pro-Palestinian," but this is precisely why, in the opinion of many American reviewers, it is inherently aggressive toward Israel, under the logic that anything that isn't pro is, by definition, anti. There is no way out of that intellectual cul-de-sac, which is why the script does its best to avoid that road.

Munich is a film about a truly horrific terrorist attack and the response to that terrorist attack. It is not about moral equivalence. It is about what people will do for their families, for their clans, in order to protect and define them. It is about how far we will go in the service of the people we come from and the narratives we tell ourselves to justify what we have done. Those who have sympathies with either side will go away retaining their sympathies: that is the nature of the argument. And it is exactly this, the nature of the argument-what it does to those who are involved in it-and not the argument itself that Munich is interested in. Crucially, it is billed as "historical fiction," which will permit those who cling to their separate, mutually exclusive and antagonistic set of facts to call the film a "fantasy." This film has made groups on both sides uncomfortable because the truths it tells are of a kind that transcend facticity. Whichever family you belong to, national or personal, these truths are recognizable and difficult to dismiss.

Munich is an imagined reconstruction of a program of assassination that Mossad implemented against the organizers and surviving participants of the 1972 Munich massacre. If you are too young to remember that massacre, rent the documentary One Day in September, because Munich wastes no time setting up context. Unusually for Spielberg, he treats us as historical grown-ups (though not, as we shall see, geographical ones). At the heart of the movie is Avner, a young Israeli who loves his families, both small-his pregnant wife, Daphna and large: Israel itself. He is an inexperienced but dedicated soldier chosen by Mossad agent Ephraim to head up a ragtag team of four operatives: a brash, South African-horn getaway driver called Steve a Belgian toy maker turned explosives expert a German-Jewish document forger and a "cleanup" guy.  Together they roam through a series of 1970s European cities meticulously re-created, although too laboriously symbolized (in Spielberg's Paris, wherever you are, you can always see the Eiffel Tower), doing unto their enemies as their enemies have done unto them.

In the process we begin to understand the biblical imperative "an eye for an eye" as something more deadly than simple revenge: it is of the body. It permits us the indulgence of thinking with our blood. And Spielberg understands the blood thinkers in his audience: for every assassination of an Arab, we return-lest we forget to a grim flashback of that day in September, when eleven innocent Israeli athletes met their deaths in brutal and disgusting fashion. Flashbacks repeatedly punctuate the film's (slightly overlong) running time. We are not allowed to forget. But neither can we ignore what is happening to Avner as he progresses through his mission. Eric Bana gives a convincing portrayal of a man traveling far from who he is in order to defend who he is. His great asset is a subtle face that is not histrionic when conveying competing emotions. The scene where Avner is offered a double mazel tov-once for the arrival of his new baby, and once for the death of a target-is a startling example of this. Through Avner, Spielberg makes a reluctant audience recognize a natural and dangerous imperative in the blood, a fury we all share. "I did it for my family" is the most repeated line in this film. Its echo is silent, yet you can't help hearing it: what would you do for yours? The perverse nullity of the cycle of violence is made clear. Death is handed out to those who handed out death and from whose ashes new death dealers will rise. Children repeatedly wander into the line of fire. Normal human relations are warped or discarded. When Black September launches a letter-bomb campaign in response to Avner's assassinations, there is a twisted satisfaction. "Now we're in dialogue," says one Mossad agent. Forty years later we are familiar with this kind of dialogue and where it leads.

The technical achievements of the film are many. Most notable is the photography, which gives a subtle color palette to each city while lighting the whole like The Third Man, with bleached-out windows and skies that the actors shy away from, preferring the darker corners of the frame. The play of shadow and light looks like a church, a synagogue, a mosque. In the shadows, the cast debates the ethics of their situation and offer as many answers as there are speakers. If the audience recoils from South African Steve's assessment, "The only blood that matters to me is Jewish blood!" it understands Avner when he says, ''I'm not comfortable with confusion." It is easier to think with the blood. It is easier to be certain.

But how many of us know what to do with these two competing, equally true facts we hear exchanged between Ephraim and Avner: "Israelis will die if these men live.  You know this is true!” says Ephraim.  Avner replies, “There is no peace at the end of this.  You know this is true!”

July 18, 2012

“Will cook for sex”

No, this is not the title to a new Woody Allen movie.  Rather the title of a book I spotted and bought in an old dusty barn/souvenir shop whilst traveling through Kane County.

“Will Cook for Sex” by Rocky Fino is a delightful roadmap to a loved one’s heart, or to delight a group of friends.  The recipes are simple to follow with step-by-step pics to guide you.  Move over Dr. Phil! Let’s take this book to the kitchen and play…

I tried two of the recipes on the spot.  The first prepared by the delightful Mlle. D., a.k.a. “Queen of Tarts” called Kingfish Benedict from the morning after chapter.  Delectable.  I ask Mlle. D. what she thought of the whole notion.  She smiled and said that she knew a few morning after recipes herself.

The second was served to me by horse rancher Larry, near Bryce Canyon, Utah.  We had gathered for Sunday dinner.  He prepared Longhorn Canapes from the Her Bunco Night Potluck chapter.  To die for.  Connie, the wife, who has evidently developed hidden strengths,  as well as cunning, broused through the book and said; “Yep, these will work!”

A copy of the book is on its way to Frenchtoast with my best wishes for many happy mornings after. My copy stayed with Connie (winter nights get chilly in the mountains of Kane County).

June 12, 2012

Shall we? Dance!

Let’s talk about Fred. And his partners: Rita, Cyd, Paulette, Vera-Ellen, Nanette, the two Powells — Eleanor and Jane — Judy, Leslie, Audrey, numerous couches and chairs, several tables (dining and coffee), a British ceiling and one supremely fortunate coat rack. But mainly, of course, there was the divine Ginger, always magnificently dressed, occasionally, as in “Top Hat,” by three or four well-endowed ostriches.

While the Hays Office in the mid-’30s was in its most censorial early days, its enforcers changing any plotline or dialogue from which they could squeeze sexual innuendo, they managed in their verbal vigilance to, myopically, overlook Fred Astaire’s duets with Ginger Rogers, in which he demonstrates clearly, concisely, even overtly, every move any aspiring lover might do well to adopt. Put down the Kama Sutra and its impossible acrobatics, rent “The Gay Divorcee” and watch Astaire seduce a resistant Rogers, transforming her from a feisty, fast-talking, fast-walking, too-good-for-you dame into a dewy-eyed ingénue.   “That? Oh, that was nothing,” his modesty after brilliance his most disarming charm.

Astaire is our American Casanova camouflaged in tux and tails or sailor suit as a clean-cut gentleman, sometimes a naïve goof, zooming about in Hollywood musical fluff. Good, solid, still funny fluff. As “Night and Day” closes, Astaire lands Rogers gently on a steep incline — she’s mesmerized by the magician who just took her on the ride of her life — bends over her suggestively, pulls back and says, “Cigarette?” Mute and dazed, she declines. But we need Paul Henreid to light one for us. Yep, the Hays Office really did miss the dance. Thank God.

Rogers was Astaire’s best partner (the coat rack vying for a close second), though none, not even she, could match him as a dancer — watch how he takes off in his solos like Mercury in winged taps. But it didn’t matter: they were good and gorgeous, and he did the rest. Hermes Pan, Astaire’s longtime choreographic collaborator, said, “Except for times Fred worked with real professional dancers like Cyd Charisse, it was a 25-year war.” So why did these women look like goddesses with Astaire?

Because of Adele.

Adele? Yes, his sister, Adele. For the duration of their astonishing 27-year partnership, the longest in his life — it began when Fred was 5 and Adele 8 — she was the undisputed star of the duo. In her fascinating new book, “The Astaires,” the Australian theater historian Kathleen Riley describes the exploits of this brother-sister team in glorious detail. And it becomes clear that it was behind and beside, but never in front of, Adele that Fred learned not only how to dance, but how to present a woman, honor her and make her glow. It is now a mostly lost art, hard-won equality having removed woman’s pedestal and left her prevaricating in the ditch of parallelism.

He can certainly restore one’s faith in humanity should it, by chance, ever falter — or at least in one extraordinary human being’s capacity for beauty. “He is like Bach,” George Balanchine said. “Astaire has that same concentration of genius; there is so much of the dance in him that it has been distilled.”
Riley performs the great service of giving us the history before the history, of Fred and Adele, the biggest vaudeville and musical theater stars of their time. It’s a love story rarely told, of that between a sister and her brother, one bonded in blood but cemented by hoofing.

When the Astaires crossed the pond for the first time, in 1923, to star in “Stop Flirting” at the Shaftesbury in London, their popularity kicked into a high gear from which it never descended — until Adele retired eight years later to marry. The show ran for 16 months, and each performance included no fewer than 18 dances, a tour de force that left British critics reaching for biblical superlatives: “Nothing like them since the Flood.”

As the toasts of the town they cavorted with Noël Coward, the Prince of Wales (long before Mrs. Simpson) — he saw the show 10 times — and the prince’s three brothers, who ushered the young Americans about town to all the trendiest clubs, where Fred was caught dancing an “inappropriate” Charleston with Lady Edwina Mountbatten. When not dancing, the siblings endorsed shampoo, cold cream, pens, toothbrushes, bronchial pastilles and shoes. “Astairia” was afoot.

J. M. Barrie asked Adele to play Peter Pan (she couldn’t for contractual reasons), while P. G. Wodehouse, A. A. Milne, John Galsworthy, Hugh Walpole and Somerset Maugham became admirers and friends. Cecil Beaton likened Adele, “with her large amusing head on a minute exquisite little body,” to Felix the Cat, while another critic took a more existential tone: “Hers is not only the poetry of motion but its wit, its malice, its humor.”

While there is, sadly, no footage of Fred and Adele dancing together, there is one other way, besides Nathan’s glorious flurries, to reach back in time and touch her, via a handful of audio recordings of the Astaires singing, made in the late 1920s. In “Funny Face” — written for them — they sing to each other, starting with Fred: “You have all the qualities of Peter Pan / . . . You’re a cutie / With more than beauty / You’ve got such a lot / of Personal-i-T-N-T.”

Riley’s book makes clear that during those three decades of dancing with Adele, Fred was driven, in part, by the belief that he was “a detriment to my sister,” and thus honed his craft on so many levels, devising new levels in the process, that he became a creature, like Mayakovsky’s “cloud in trousers,” beyond his sister’s obviously radiant, though possibly only-of-her-time, talent. While Adele charmed them in the spotlight, her brother became an artist of the highest order.

When Astaire was given a Life Achievement Award by the American Film Institute, in 1981, he was 81 years old. As he took the stage a single ring shone on his elegant hands: the gold signet pinky ring that Adele had given him in London over 50 years earlier. This ring can be seen in virtually all his films, circling his finger as he circles the waists of one beautiful woman after another. “My sister, Adele,” he said in his unscripted speech, “was mostly responsible for my being in show business. She was the whole show, she really was. In all the vaudeville acts we had and the musical comedies we did together, Delly was the one that was the shining light and I was just there pushing away.”

Just pushing away. Like Bach.

May 8, 2012

Why be happy?

Marianne Moore with her mother photographed by Cecil Beaton

Perhaps every autobiographical first novel serves its author as Jeanette Winterson’s did — as “a story I could live with”.  “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit,” buoyant and irrepressible, was published in 1985, for its author half a lifetime ago, and what one can live with changes over time.

“Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?” is a memoir as unconventional and winning as the rollicking Bildungsroman Winterson assembled from the less malignant aspects of her eccentric Pentecostal upbringing, a novel that instantly established her distinctive voice. This new book wrings humor from adversity, as did the fictionalized version of Winterson’s youth, but the ghastly childhood transfigured there is not the same as the one vivisected here in search of truth and its promise of setting the clear eyed free. At the center of both narratives is Mrs. Winterson, as the author often calls her mother in Why Be Happy. It would be easy to dismiss this formality as an attempt to establish retroactively something that never existed between Winterson and her adoptive mother: a respectful distance governed by commonly accepted standards of decency and reason. But, even more, the form of address suggests the terrible grandeur of a character who transcends the strictly mortal in her dimensions and her power, a monolith to whom any version of mother cannot do justice.

“Tallish and weighing around 20 stone” (in other words, about 280 pounds), Mrs. Winterson, now deceased, was “out of scale, larger than life, now and again exploding to her full 300 feet,” a force that eclipsed Winterson’s self-effacing father, who couldn’t protect himself, let alone his child, from the woman he had married. It wasn’t her physical size that tipped Mrs. Winterson from mere gravity toward the psychic equivalent of a black hole, vacuuming all the light into her hysterical fundamentalism, so much as it was her monumental derangement. “A flamboyant depressive . . . who kept a revolver in the duster drawer, and the bullets in a tin of Pledge,” Mrs. Winterson waited not in joyful so much as smug anticipation for the apocalypse that would destroy the neighbors and deliver her to the exalted status piety had earned her. Opposed to sexual intercourse, as she was to all forms of intimacy, Winterson’s mother adopted her in hopes of raising a friend, the author speculates, for her mother had no other. But the trouble Mrs. Winterson found in reading a book, “that you never know what’s in it until it’s too late,” is the same trouble that complicates parenthood. Or, as Mrs. Winterson explained it: “The Devil led us to the wrong crib.”

Thus began the story of a mother’s failure to revise what she found objectionable in the creature from whom she expected comfort. Beatings made no difference, nor did being “shut in a coal hole” or routinely locked out of the house all night. As for the three-day exorcism occasioned by Mrs. Winterson’s discovery of her daughter’s physical attraction to her own sex: no demon emerged to “set the curtains on fire or fly into the dog,” requiring that it be strangled.

It’s a testament to Winterson’s innate generosity, as well as her talent, that she can showcase the outsize humor her mother’s equally capacious craziness provides even as she reveals the cruelties Mrs. Winterson imposed on her in the name of rearing a God-fearing Christian. “The one good thing about being shut in a coal hole is that it prompts reflection,” Winterson observes, inspiring the question always asked of writers like her, who appear to have transcended misfortunes that might have crippled or silenced another. How did Jeanette Winterson recover from the fantastically bad luck of landing in the embrace of a woman who understood motherhood as a daily struggle with the Devil over the ownership of her child’s soul?

“What we notice in stories,” Winterson answers toward the end of her memoir, “is the nearness of the wound to the gift.”

From Oedipus to Harry Potter, literature has provided unlimited examples of the wounded hero, a gallery in which Winterson places herself, having followed her own “blood-trail” back to its source, and the gift that would offer salvation. “My mother,” Winterson explains, “was in charge of language”.

To confront life head on demands courage, to survive requires imagination. Perseus avoids Medusa’s paralyzing gaze by looking at her reflection on the surface of his shield. The author must have been more inventive. Put your money on Jeanette Winterson. Seventeen books ago, she proved she had what she needed. Heroines are defined not by their wounds but by their triumphs.

April 24, 2012

Lonely Planet

The  Playwright Arthur Miller once observed, “An era can be said to end when its basic illusions are exhausted.” Most of the illusions that defined the last decade — the notion that global growth had moved to a permanently higher plane, the hope that the Fed (or any central bank) could iron out the highs and lows of the business cycle — are indeed spent.
After a decade of rapid growth, the world’s most celebrated emerging markets are poised to slow down. Which countries will rise to challenge them?
To identify the economic stars of the future we should abandon the habit of extrapolating from the recent past and lumping wildly diverse countries together. We need to remember that sustained economic success is a rare phenomenon.
As an era of easy money and easy growth comes to a close, China in particular will cool down. Other major players including Brazil, Russia, and India face their own daunting challenges and inflated expectations. The new Breakout Nations will probably spring from the margins, even from the shadows.
Ruchir Sharma here identifies which are most likely to leap ahead and why.

April 13, 2012

just between cousins - a voice from Old New York

If there was to be a Proust of New York, it ought to have been Louis Auchincloss. He made a career out of documenting the professional arrangements, private derangement's and social displays of New York’s old elite. The author of more than 60 books, Auchincloss described in his fiction the privileged, Protestant society that had dominated New York for centuries and the forces that encroached upon that society as he grew older. The basic contours of his charmed life are well known–his Upper East Side childhood; his school years at Groton, Yale and the University of Virginia; his work as a lawyer at a prestigious Wall Street firm–but Auchincloss brings to them new detail and great seriousness in the posthumous memoir A Voice From Old New York.

It is perhaps the blind spots in Auchincloss’ vision that clarify for the reader certain facts about the city where he lived. What he reveals, however accidentally, is how one’s own physical and financial security can seduce one into believing that this world is the best world. Insurance becomes assurance, an easy, trusting take on life.

April 2, 2012

The Paradox of Human Nature.

“The Paradox of Love,” reveals that French men are far from being the world's best swordsmen.  So much for an accent being a sexual aphrodisiac. It turns out that consuming large quantities of red wine and cheese at 10 p.m. does not have the same impact as consuming several jars of Viagra. On the contrary, it makes men want to go to straight to sleep. 

“The Paradox of Love,” by Pascal Bruckner, is an urbane but unsparing portrait of the way the French love and suggests that sophistication has as many pitfalls as naiveté.  Among the many subjects of Bruckner’s highly readable meditation is a section titled “Europe, the United States: Different Taboos,” in which he marvels at the parade of American sex scandals — Clarence Thomas, Bill Clinton, Eliot Spitzer. All this “strikes French people as grotesque,” Bruckner writes. “On the moral level…one can only urge Americans to learn from the Old World how to be temperate.” Yet Bruckner also suggests that all is not entirely well with the French libido, either. It is not a coincidence that the most famous living French writer, Michel Houellebecq, got that way by writing novels full of sexual despair, in which unattractive men, edged out of sexual competition, patronize prostitutes or succumb to sheer nihilism. Bruckner confirms that there is indeed a “paradox” about today’s laissez-faire sexual mores in Europe: The freedom it offers is exactly the freedom of the market, in which there are always winners and losers. “Rejection is so terrible in democratic countries because it cannot be blamed on the wickedness of the state or ukases issued by a church. If I am not received with open arms, I have only myself to blame; I may be dying of desire, but it is my being as such that leaves the other person cold. The judgment is as final as one handed down by a court: no thanks, not you.”

What’s more, even as Bruckner embraces the ideology of romantic love — “a whole erotics, love that makes us as much as we make it” — he shows how the lifelong pursuit of passion exacts an awful toll on relationships. “In some Western European countries marriage has become pointless,” he writes. “Instead of the conjugal straitjacket,” people prefer “a light coat that one can change at will.” After all, if the delight of new love is the highest of human experiences, then a relationship of more than a year or two is simply a kind of martyrdom: “Our romances have never had such short lives.” This is a romantic “poverty that is more insidious than any other, because it arises from satiation, not from lack.”

Pascal Bruckner is the award-winning author of many books of fiction and nonfiction, including the novel Bitter Moon, which was made into a film by Roman Polanski. Bruckner's nonfiction books include Perpetual Euphoria (Princeton) and The Tyranny of Guilt.

March 25, 2012

What hath Bell Labs wrought? Why the Future, of course!

In today’s world of Apple, Google and Facebook, the name may not ring any bells for most readers, but for decades — from the 1920s through the 1980s — Bell Labs, the research and development wing of AT&T, was the most innovative scientific organization in the world.
As Jon Gertner argues in his riveting new book, The Idea Factory, it was where the future was invented.
Indeed, Bell Labs was behind many of the innovations that have come to define modern life, including the transistor (the building block of all digital products), the laser, the silicon solar cell and the computer operating system called Unix (which would serve as the basis for a host of other computer languages).
Bell Labs developed the first communications satellites, the first cellular telephone systems and the first fiber-optic cable systems.
The Bell Labs scientist Claude Elwood Shannon effectively founded the field of information theory, which would revolutionize thinking about communications; other Bell Labs researchers helped push the boundaries of physics, chemistry and mathematics, while defining new industrial processes like quality control.

In The Idea Factory, Mr. Gertner not only gives us spirited portraits of the scientists behind Bell Labs’ phenomenal success, but he also looks at the reasons that research organization became such a fount of innovation, laying the groundwork for the networked world we now live in.

February 27, 2012

Jumping the Abbey

“Jumping the shark” is an idiom used to describe the moment in the evolution of a television show when it begins a decline in quality that is beyond recovery. It is synonymous with the phrase, “the beginning of the end.”  —Wikipedia

It is puzzling that there should be no close equivalent in other European cultures for the English country house drama, as known through novel, film, television series, and the stage.
English it is—not, for once, more correctly British. A Scottish country house would imply a very different kind of story, while a Welsh country house (on any great scale) is a rarity. The French and Germans have their  country houses in plenty, but are too discreet to prompt such universal fiction. Steam trains do not draw up at local Spanish or Italian stations, bringing the weekend guests. There are few manservants laying out the clothes before dinner in Belgium. One wonders really how Europe managed at all.
The greatest rival to the English country house tradition is the Russian, with its rich suggestions of a feudal system in decline, and with its great questions hanging in the air: How shall I live to some purpose? How can I reform the world I know? Those who ask such questions may be querulous and ineffectual, but the questions themselves are intelligent and profound, whereas the great questions that hang over the English country house come, for the most part, from the far side of stupid: Can I score a personal triumph at the flower show while forgoing first prize for my roses? Can I secure my lord’s affection by pretending to go rescue his dog? (The answer Downto(w)n Abbey offers is yes in both cases.)
Among the by-products of the series, one book stands out, Margaret Powell’s Below Stairs, which in its latest incarnation bears the subtitle “The Classic Kitchen Maid’s Memoir That Inspired Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey.”
Powell was born in 1907, and what she describes in this memoir is an early life in service in the years after World War I, in London and on the south coast of England (nothing nearly as glamorous as Downto(w)n Abbey). First published in 1968, this appears to be a very honorable example of the editor’s art (the copyright line is shared with the dedicatee, Leigh Crutchley).
Powell had as a child won a scholarship that her parents’ poverty prevented her taking up. Work as a kitchen maid came as a prelude to marriage and motherhood. The impulse to resume her education came from the desire to keep up with the conversations of her children, simply to understand what they were discussing when they talked about history, astronomy, or French. Clearly Powell had narrowly missed, in early life, the chance to become a teacher. So this is a book about class. Clearly, too, wherever her education had taken her, she would have been forced to choose between marriage and a job. Married women simply didn’t go out to work, then, she reminds us:  “Working-class husbands bitterly resented the very thought that their wives should have to work outside the home. It seemed to cast a slur on the husband and implied that he wasn’t capable of keeping you.”
A tribute then to the achievements of adult education.

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