November 2, 2016

The long dark teatime of the soul,

recent reads worth mentioning.

Devastation Road

Say 'road novel' or 'road movie' to anyone, and you'll likely get Kerouac's 'On the Road' or 'Thelma and Louise' or 'Easy Rider', or even 'The Grapes of Wrath' as an answer or some other example which makes the genre seem uniquely American. But the road or journey as a narrative form has its roots much earlier than that, in Homer's Odyssey, or Virgil's Aeneid - a hero sets out on an often perilous journey, survival by no means guaranteed, but when the destination is finally attained, he will have learned something about himself and the world he lives in.

Devastation Road is such a Bildungsroman: an Englishman wakes up in a field somewhere in Europe in the last days of World War II.  He doesn't know who or where he is, only that he is lost, and has lost his memory. He meets Janek, a Czech teenager, and despite not speaking the other's language, they manage to piece together enough to discover they share a common cause: the urge to learn the fate of their respective brothers. They start walking, like the millions of other displaced persons in 1945 - which feels incredibly potent in the context of the current refugee crisis - in search of safety, and in Owen's case particularly, in search of identity.

It's a meticulously researched novel - Hewitt took the physical journey his protagonists take in the novel and also learned to speak Czech - but it's Hewitt's ability to conjure the intense, vivid, claustrophobic confusion of a Europe broken apart by war and to deftly explore themes of identity, nationhood, and the extremes to which desperate people are driven in a bid to survive, that gives Devastation Road its narrative impact.

The Improbability of Love

Hannah Rothschild, documentary film maker, writer and Chair of the National Gallery. Her first novel, The Improbability of Love, is a vivid satire of the art world, where the stakes are so high, people are inevitably compelled to behave in an unbecoming manner. It tells the story of Annie McDee, sweet, single and skint, recovering from the disappointment of a failed relationship, who buys a grimy, unprepossessing painting in a junk shop. Little does she know it's 'The Improbability of Love' a lost masterpiece by Antoine Watteau, one of the great painters of the 18th Century. We're drawn immediately into a cut-throat and deeply glamorous world, peopled by exiled oligarchs, billionaire collectors and unscrupulous dealers, the super wealthy and the avaricious, all of whom would do anything to possess the painting. 

June 3, 2016


Is Donald Trump a throwback to a time when leaders were dictators, war was noble and women were property?  I think that is the wrong question.

What is happening in our country is not limited to Trump's candidacy. It is bigger. Think global. "The Chrysalis Effect: The Metamorphosis of Global Culture" — the last book by the sociologist Philip Slater — gave me the means to analyze and to realize what is at stake.

High praise? Try this…

“The Chrysalis Effect' is the most brilliant tour de force of this decade. It is, and will continue to be, the most powerful and original analysis of this century's planetary vertigo. Without exaggeration, Slater's path-breaking illumination of our global 'state of mind' can be compared only with the work of a Gibbon, or Toynbee or Plutarch. It's that profound and should be the most widely read book for years to come.”   ~Warren Bennis  

April 20, 2016

Mea Culpa.

As I soak up television dramas that revel in the scandalous personal lives of popes and kings, I am in danger of losing sight of these figures’ real historical importance.

I am viewing The Borgias, a historical drama directed by Neil Jordan. Jeremy Irons plays Rodrigo Borgia, 15th-century pope and lascivious patriarch. The series promised to do for the Italian Renaissance what The Tudors did for the English Reformation: explore a period of political and religious change through the medium of kinky sex and comic book violence. And yet, while the drama is certainly not censorious, it does conform to a new morality in popular history. The Borgias, The Tudors and the HBO series Rome all seem to conclude that the reputation and beliefs of historical figures are invalidated by their personal misbehavior. But this mix of gossip and prudery does not apply well to previous societies that lived more comfortably with the paradox of public virtue and private vice.

If one is to believe the rumors Rodrigo Borgia (1431-1503) is a good choice for a soap opera about religious hypocrisy. He won election to the papacy by bribing cardinals, one of whom supposedly received four mules’ worth of silver. Crowned Alexander VI in 1492, he enjoyed hunting, dancing and carousing and hosted bacchanals in the Vatican. This supposedly celibate priest sired several children by his mistress. They were hawked around Europe in search of marriages by which Rodrigo could enhance his wealth and power. His daughter, Lucrezia, had been betrothed twice by the age of ten. He made his sociopathic son, Cesare, a bishop at 15. When Rodrigo died his corpse was so bloated with extravagance and disease that the papal master of ceremonies had to jump on it to squeeze it into the coffin.

But Rodrigo’s moral corruption was far from unusual for a medieval pope. Pius II (1405-64) is typically cited as an example of civic Catholicism at its best: he was an imperial poet laureate, condemned slavery and remains the only reigning pope to have written an autobiography. Yet he also composed erotic novels and produced hordes of illegitimate children. Nor was Rodrigo an unusually brutal pontiff. Julius II (1443-1513) was dubbed ‘The Fearsome Pope’ and ‘The Warrior Pope’ for good reason.

More importantly for his contemporaries Rodrigo’s politicking did not undermine his papal authority. Rome was a small but significant power in the 15th century; its cardinals played for high temporal stakes, with wealth and influence over kings going to the winner. If Rodrigo had been a saint he wouldn’t have lasted long. We must not conflate the Vatican of today with the crusading state of the medieval epoch.

Nor did Rodrigo’s sexual promiscuity make him any less of a Catholic in the eyes of his peers. Sure, they were scandalized by his immorality. But most saw him as a bad Catholic rather than no Catholic at all. Only a tiny minority thought Rodrigo’s behavior exposed Catholic dogma as a cynical fraud.

Yet this is precisely the modern ethic that so much of popular history tries to impose upon the past. We seem obsessed with unraveling the private lives of religious men and idealists, exposing them as frail human beings incapable of living up to impossible standards. We define integrity by the conflation of what we say and what we do. If anyone maintains a private self at odds with their public image, we cry hypocrisy. Airport book stands are littered with volumes that scrutinize popes, tsars and commissars as if they were backbench MPs. That is hardly appropriate given their relative significance and the more complex morality of a per-democratic age.

This trend is worrying because it seeks to personalize history to the point of sordid anecdote. It sidelines the fact that great men and women have been deemed great by generations of scholars because they advanced or reflected an epic historic theme. Thus, the Henry VIII of The Tudors is not unrealistic (perfect abs aside), but he is unimportant because the show fails to explain the long-term significance of establishing the Church of England. Likewise the bad Catholic Rodrigo Borgia’s relevance lies in his uncertain statecraft, not his wandering hands.

The tomb of Pope Alexander VI is relatively understated and unknown (Santa Maria in Monserrato National Church of Spain, Rome).

March 22, 2016

Walking each other home.

Spell-checkers won’t catch
You’re mistaken homophones
Scattered hear and their
                           ~ Gord Roberts

I have never fainted from excitement while reading, but I must admit the image fascinates me. A woman was said to have had this response when she read French Renaissance essayist Montaigne's work. I love the possibility that people can experience such strong visceral reactions to what they’re reading that they faint. New ideas are thrilling, and they should energize and excite the writer and the reader. Why don’t we have more excited readers? Maybe it’s because we don’t have more excited writers. 

There are a breathtaking number of possibilities and experiences in front of us each day; yet we often find ourselves thinking the same thoughts, seeing the same things, and responding in the same ways. An excited writer has the power to awaken us to the possibilities, breathe life from the page, and encourage us to live like the bases are loaded—with enthusiasm, intense curiosity, and passion.

As an excited reader and writer, I’m fascinated by ideas and simple concepts under complex surfaces, and I’m always looking for connections between disparate things. Being a student of life is required if our words are going to have the power to shock into truthfulness, help others to see things in different ways, and create a highly reflective surface that shines others’ brilliance back at them.

One of my favorite quotations is from Ram Dass, who said, “We're all just walking each other home." What a lovely journey that can be when we’re walking with those who reflect and enhance our thoughts. Don’t forget your smelling salts.

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