Wednesday, December 15, 2010

TV Review: Mordecai Richler: The Last of the Wild Jews

This article was first published at Blogcritics

On December 19 Bravo will premiere its original documentary on the life of controversial Canadian literary figure Mordecai Richler, The Last of the Wild Jews. Like most readers, I first came to Richler's work through his 1959 novel about Jewish life set in the Montreal neighborhood in which he grew up during the thirties and forties, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. While the novel was a considerable artistic success, even spawning an acclaimed film starring Richard Dreyfus in 1974, it was also responsible for some negative criticism from the Jewish community both in Canada and the United States. His portrayal of what many saw as the aggressive materialistic Duddy was seen as the work of what they saw as a "self hating Jew." Similar criticism had been leveled at novelists like Philip Roth for stories like "Defender of the Faith" and Portnoy's Complaint, Norman Mailer and Saul Bellow.

Nonetheless his work, like theirs, was a popular success. He was part of what seemed like a Jewish Renaissance in the arts. There were the writers of course, but there were also the comedians: Myron Cohen and Jackie Mason who brought the Yiddish sensibility into the cultural mainstream; Don Rickles, Lenny Bruce and Jackie Leonard, with their 'take no prisoners' attacking comedy. Like them Richler is seen as a provocateur—one of the wild Jews.

While it may be debatable whether he is the "last" of this wild bunch, there is no question but that he belongs. It is not only his willingness to look at the Jewish community critically, it is also his pugnacious attack on any and everything he finds unjust. Besides his satirical picture of aspects of Jewish life, the documentary focuses on two of his other crusades, his attacks on Canadian Nationalism and Quebec separatism. Richler is not shy about speaking his mind. From the beginning, the film makes that clear. "I don't trust television people," he tells one TV interviewer. Talking about the North American Continent, he says: "I wish it were one country." Why, he wants to know from an interviewer, is he always referred to as a Jewish writer, why not simply a writer. Even at a high school reunion, he finds it necessary to make a snide crack about the musical entertainment. This is not a man who tries to avoid controversy. It is not strange that he gets threatening phone calls. It is not strange that he has his share of detractors.

Although the film does include a good bit of biographical information, it is not essentially a biography. It talks about the school he attended, about the fact that he met the woman he loved as a soul mate a few days after he was married to another woman, about his move to England when he was nineteen. But what we are shown are really only highlights. We learn relatively little about his family. We hear nothing about the novels prior to Duddy Kravitz and little about anything he wrote after except forBarney's Version, a film version of which just happens to be due out in the near future. The focus of the documentary is on the man's penchant for controversy.

As with the typical documentary there are the talking heads, old friends talking about the man, literary figures talking about his work. Florence, his wife, talks about the difficulties of living with a man who put his work before everything else in his life. His friend Ted Kotcheff talks about being the first to read Duddy Kravitz and eventually getting funding to make the film. Margaret Atwood talks about the psychological crutches he depended on in social situations. Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker gives some insight into his significance as a writer and what it means to be a "wild Jew." There is archival footage of the Yiddish community in Montreal at the time Richler was growing up. There scenes from both the film of Duddy Kravitz as well as Barney's Version. Director Francine Pelletier's approach to her unconvenional subject is fairly conventional.

If Richler never quite achieved the reputation of some of the other "wild Jews" in the States, it may be less because of the quality of his major work, than it is because of his focus on Canadian issues in his later work. Even though much of his writing was published in American periodicals, more than likely, it makes a difference to parochial readers if your book deals with Jews in New Jersey or Chicago as opposed to Jews in Montreal. Still, it is clearly arguable that Mordecai Richler at his best is as good as they come, and this is a message that comes through loud and clear from this estimable documentary.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Music Review: The Chocolate Soldier-Studio Cast Recording

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Masterworks Broadway's recent release of the 1958 studio cast recording of the classic 1908 operetta,The Chocolate Soldier, is a welcome opportunity for modern audiences to become reacquainted with one of the finer examples of an art form much neglected in this day and age. Sung through musicals like Les Miz and melodramatic extravaganzas like Phantom come close, and while one may argue that they are the contemporary heirs of the older genre, they are clearly the product of a different sensibility. The Chocolate Soldier belongs to another age: it smacks of evening dress, handle bar mustaches and horses and carriage. Still, if its form is of another time, its message at least is clearly of today.

Based on George Bernard Shaw's anti-war satire, Arms and the Man, The Chocolate Soldier ridicules the idea that war is a heroic endeavor, by creating as its hero a man who carries chocolates in his ammunition belt rather than bullets. He is escaping from the front lines when he sneaks into the bedroom of a beautiful young lady who is engaged to an enemy officer, with the obvious results. Shaw allowed his play to be used as the basis of the operetta, according to Stanley Green's program notes, on condition that the names of the characters are changed and none of his dialogue be used for fear that a popular musical would have a negative effect on productions of the original.

The operetta premiered in Vienna in 1908 with music by written by Oscar Straus and a libretto by Rudolph Bernauer and Leopold Jacobson. An English translation by Stanislaus Stange debuted on Broadway in 1909. The 1958 recording features Metropolitan Opera stars Rise Stevens as Nadina and Robert Merrill as Buneli, the eponymous chocolate soldier. Peter Palmer, who had starred as Li'l Abner on Broadway played Alexius, Nadina's fiancé and Jo Sullivan is Mascha, the maid he eventually marries.

At times the music tends toward what used to be called the schmaltzy; at other times there are touches of Gilbert and Sullivan. The best known piece in the operetta is "My Hero" from the first of the three acts. The "Come, come, I love you truly" section is custom made for the gorgeous soprano of Rise Stevens. It is reprised in a duet with Merrill as part of the finale to Act II. It is an iconic piece in the operetta canon, the kind of song that is the glory of the genre for those that like it and probably the object of derision for those that don't. The lyrics may be a bit clunky for modern taste, but the lush melody makes up for that in spades. "Never Was There Such a Lover" is a clever falling out of love duet between Stevens and Palmer. "The Chocolate Soldier" could have been a witty duet for Stevens and Merrill, but it loses a lot with some of the phrasing in the chorus.

Gilbert and Sullivan echoes begin with the first act Introduction both with the marching male ensemble and the young maiden trio. "Seek the Spy," a piece for the ensemble, could have come right out of any of the Gilbert and Sullivan opus. The same is true for "Alexius the Heroic," a set piece for Palmer along with the ensemble. The cutesy "Letter Song" in the third act, on the other hand seems less of an echo; it is also less compelling musically. I guess if you are going to be channeling anyone, you can't do better than Gilbert and Sullivan.

The Chocolate Soldier is not for everyone. It is a period piece for a period that has long gone, but for many it will bring back fond memories. For those of you, cancel that. For those of us who loved The Student Prince, this album is a treasure. For those of us who remember Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald, this album is a must. For those of us who look forward to the New Year's Eve productions of Die Fledermaus, this is an album that belongs in our music libraries.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Sherlock Holmes on Screen and Off

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes made it to HBO Saturday Night, and although I had managed to avoid it when it was in the theaters and certainly wasn't going to buy it when it came out on DVD, I gave in and watched. After all, everything I had heard or read about the film had inspired little incentive to run out to the local Cineplex. While I am not quite a fanatic about Holmes, not one of those Baker St. Irregulars or anything like that, I do fancy myself something of an aficionado, and the idea of Sherlock Holmes as a kind of 19th century action hero was more than I was willing to stomach. Holmes was a master detective who dealt with crime by using what another iconic sleuth would call his "little gray cells." My Holmes wore a deer stalker, played mournfully on his violin and had the lean and hungry look of Basil Rathbone. He had nothing in common with a bemused, 'bemuscled' Robert Downey, Jr. He didn't jump out of windows and engage in bare knuckle brawling. His sidekick wasn't a handsome youthful Jude Law, but Nigel Bruce, a harrumphing gray haired bumbler that never seemed to have a clue what was going on.

I watched¸ and sure enough what we've got here is Sherlock Holmes as a 19th century superhero minus mask and spandex. True, there are traces of Holmes. He is fond of disguises. He is subject to depression. He fiddles with a violin, but never as sweetly as Basil. He is a keen observer with remarkable deductive powers, both of which are emphasized by directorial film tricks. Nonetheless, this is not Sherlock Holmes; this is somebody else using his name. But the odd thing is that it didn't really matter. This was a fairly entertaining movie: farfetched plot certainly, but entertaining enough. If only they had called the hero something else.

On the other hand, people have been taking liberties with Sir Arthur's creation for quite some time. Ritchie's Holmes at least lives in the 19th century unlike the latest avatar that somehow managed to show up to some critical acclaim on that venerable purveyor of all things British, Masterpiece Mystery. Benedict Cumberbatch is no superhero, and while he may sport a Dickensian name he is very much a modern denizen of the 21st century. Watson turns up as a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. One would think the one thing you couldn't do with Sherlock Holmes is pry him out of the 19th century. But then it occurs to me—and I have to check Wikipedia—that my beloved Basil Rathbone spent some time dealing with the Nazis back in the day. Indeed, it is more than likely that the first time I saw him on the big screen he was my contemporary. One forgets so easily. Holmes, it seems, can transcend time.

Come to think of it, back almost fifty years ago I remember getting half price tickets to a Broadway musical called Baker Street. I don't remember much about the production. Fritz Weaver played Holmes. Whether he sang and danced escapes me, I have to assume he did, and somehow the idea of Sherlock Holmes the song and dance man is as strange as that of the super hero Holmes. Yet the show ran long enough to start selling half price tickets (311 performances according to Wikipedia), so there must have been an audience that didn't find it offensive. Myself, I can't remember anything about it. Wikipedia says that the show was "loosely based" on Conan Doyle's story, "A Scandal in Bohemia," and that interestingly takes a liberty in creating a romance for Holmes with Irene Adler, a liberty which it turns out Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes also takes."

If there is a lesson in all this, the lesson is that when you create an iconic figure, it isn't always easy to control what future generations will do with it. Think of Count Chocula. Think of Frankenberry cereal and Young Frankenstein. Think of all the incarnations of Robin Hood from Errol Flynn to Russell Crowe, by way of Kevin Costner. Think of what's happing to our friend Spiderman on the Great White Way, as we speak. If they can do it with Sherlock Holmes, is anyone safe?
Back when I was thirteen years old the first book I ever bought with my own money was the Modern Library edition of two collections of Holmes stories, The Adventures and Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. I still have it. I think I'll go get it and read a few of those stories once again. Robert Downey, Jr., Benedict Cumberbatch, Fritz Weaver and even my beloved Basil Rathbone may be well enough as they go, but in the end, I guess there's no substitute for the real thing.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Dante ClubThe Dante Club by Matthew Pearl

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Although there is some historical research about the period and the authors, the character's motivations are absurd.

View all my reviews

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Book Review: All the Devils Are Here, by Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera

This article was first published at Blogcritics

A better title for Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera's comprehensive history of the recent financial crisis All the Devils Are Here would be All Here Are Devils. If there is one undeniable truth their book seems to document, it is that there is no one involved in the debacle, be they Wall St. moguls, Washington polls, government regulators, rating agencies, unscrupulous lenders or unqualified borrowers, who is free from blame. There were those who were outright crooks. There were those who failed to do due diligence. There were those who were simply greedy. There were those that were too dumb to see what was going on. What McLean and Nocera Have written is an indictment of all the devils involved, and everyone involved smells of the sulfurous pit.

Certainly books on the financial crisis in the past few years have not been lacking. More often than not they have been books devoted to one particular aspect or company. Michael Lewis tells the story of the men that managed to read the tea leaves and make a fortune from the crisis. William Cohan describes the collapse of Bear Stearns. Gillian Tett describes the creation of credit default swaps. All the Devils Are Here looks at the whole picture and tries to provide a coherent explanation of what happened, how it happened and most importantly why it happened. If there is only time to read one book on the subject, this should probably be it.

It goes back to the beginnings—to the creation of mortgage backed securities thirty odd years ago. "In the simplest of terms, it allowed Wall Street to scoop up loans made to people who were buying homes, bundle them together by the thousands, and then resell the bundle, in bits and pieces, to investors." In the past, if a bank had made a loan to a home buyer, that bank would hold and service the mortgage. Repayment of the loan would be to the bank. With securitization, the bank or whichever company made the loan would no longer have any interest in the repayment. That would be the concern of the buyer of the new securities. Suddenly it wasn't so important to worry about the credit worthiness of the home buyer; repayment wasn't your problem. On the other hand there were hefty fees to be made from making loans, the more loans, the more fees.

Of course, it gets more complicated with innovations on the basic theme and innovations on the innovations, but the underlying principle is the same. Loans could be made without any consideration for whether they could be paid back. As long as the real estate market was hot and prices on housing kept rising, home owners could refinance loans to meet their obligations. But, and there is always a but, prices don't always rise. Bubbles burst.

McLean and Nocera's explanations of the different financial instruments and the way they were used are as clear and concise as any I've read. This is not to say that I didn't have to read some of them two or three times to try to make sense of them. As with any profession, financiers and those who write about them have their own jargon, and it is difficult for them to avoid that jargon. Terms are defined, but it is easy for the casual reader to forget the definition. The alphabet soup of initials is confusing (even given the authors' acronym key at the beginning of the book which lists twenty nine different acronyms). Moreover, it isn't always easy to distinguish who owes who what when a short seller borrows securities and prices change. If the authors are correct, and I would suspect they are, even these people who were dealing with them on a daily basis didn't really understand them.

The book details the problems with the pseudo-governmental enterprises Fanny Mae and Freddy Mac. It deals with the subprime mortgages spun out by predatory lenders like Countrywide and Ameriquest. It describes the machinations of financial giants like Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch. It documents the role of AIG. The failures of ratings agencies like Moody's are documented as are those of governmental regulators. If the authors don't go into quite the detail on any one of the problems that the book length treatments of the problems do, they make up in breadth what they may lack in depth. Besides, there is more than enough depth here for any but the most professional of academics.

It is interesting that there is really no one in this book that comes out of this mess with anything approaching honor. Some seem less culpable than others; some seem smarter at least when it came to seeing their own self interest. Individual characters emerge as vain, obstinate, jealous, power hungry and self centered. These are men and women who are used to having their own way. They measure success by the size of their bonuses. The cast of characters is large, and sometimes for the uninitiated it is easy to forget which name goes with which company. Who works for AIG? Who is the CEO of Lehman Brothers? Roland Arnall is the head of what company? Again, there is a list of players at the beginning of the book, but like end notes, too often it is too much trouble to turn back to it.

With the country still suffering from the effects of this financial meltdown, while the movers and shakers responsible seem to have come out of it unscathed, the indictment in All the Devils Are Here ought to be required reading for us all. You know what they say about history and repetition.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Music Review: Black Sabbath Various Artists

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Let's begin by noting that Black Sabbath the CD I am reviewing has nothing to do with either the band, Black Sabbath, or any of its vocalist front men, not Ozzy, not Ronnie, not any of the others. This Black Sabbath is a compilation of songs related to Judaism in one way or another by a variety of African-American artists. Thus what you've got is black and Sabbath, or Black Sabbath.

The roster of artists includes well known jazz and pop singers like Billie Holiday, The Temptations, and Johnny Mathis, as well some lesser known performers, like Johnny Hartman and Marlena Shaw. They sing in Yiddish; they sing in Hebrew, and they sing in English. The songs come from the Yiddish theater and the Broadway stage, as well as from Tin Pan Alley and Jewish folk traditions. But in nearly all cases the musicians make the music their own, sometimes so much their own as to be jarring to the listener familiar with the traditional versions.

Marlena Shaw's rendition of "Where Can I Go" for example uses upbeat Latin rhythms which seem to work against the song lyric's passionate plea for a homeland for those oppressed in the Diaspora. While the song does end with the promise of a homeland, the happy danceable beginning seems out of place. Lena Horne's "Now!" takes the Israeli folk standard, "Hava Nagila" and transforms it into a demand for equal rights. While there is no quarrel with the sentiment, it's militancy seems alien to this classic expression of rejoicing. The Temptations' Fiddler on the Roof medley does some funky things with the rhythms of "If I Was a Rich Man" and the harmonies they use for "Sunrise, Sunset" turn a beautiful melody into something eerily discordant. In general the arrangements of all the songs in the medley are enough askew to annoy anyone who loves the originals.

On the other hand, Cab Calloway's "Utt Da Zay" which begins with very traditional sounding pseudo-chanting and then morphs into some vintage jive with a Yiddish touch makes something exciting out of what is essentially an ephemeral pop novelty song. Eartha Kitt's "Sholem," her version of the traditional religious anthem "Shalom Aleichem," captures its spirit of fervent joy, even discounting her characteristic spoken interpolations. Alberta Hunter's impassioned "Ich Hob Dich Tzufil Leiba" is a beautiful take in both Yiddish and English of the oft recorded classic, usually translated "I Love You Much Too Much." The Cannonball Adderly Sextet's "Sabbath Prayer" featuring Nat Adderly's cornet is an eloquent jazz interpretation of the Fiddler on the Roof ballad.

But it is Johnny Mathis and his bravura rendition of the opening prayer of the evening service for Yom Kippur, "Kol Nidre" which is the highlight of the album. He could easily have been mistaken for a traditional cantor, chanting the High Holy Day services on the altar of your local synagogue. It is a performance that you would probably never expect from the man who crooned "Chances Are" and "It's Not For Me to Say." It is a performance that captures the spirit of the prayer with dignity and passion.

Aside from the aesthetic interest in these explorations of Jewish themes by African-Americans, part of the CD's intention is to "shed light on the historical, political, spiritual, economic, and cultural connections" between them and Jewish-Americans. Both cast as outsiders in the country that had become their homeland, they faced many of the same problems of discrimination and alienation. Though their relations were sometimes awkward and complex, it is not strange that they should find some kinship in each other's artistic accomplishments. After all Jewish-Americans were equally as much inclined to put their own stamp on the African-American experience and their music, if not more so. George Gershwin, represented on this album by Aretha Franklin's "Swanee," built his career on the representation; some would argue the misrepresentation, of the black experience. Then, of course, there were all those Jewish singers who performed in black face. Today we find that kind of thing offensive, and even in that era, it was more than likely an attempt to capitalize on a cultural stereotype, still in some way it must also indicate a kind of admiration and respect. After all, a singer, like Al Jolson, wasn't donning black face to ridicule.

Cultural interaction goes both ways. While one or two of the tracks on Black Sabbath miss the mark, most are an important record of an African-American perspective on the Jewish-American experience as well as a compelling performance in their own right. You only have to hear Billie Holiday's brilliant soulful interpretation of "My Yiddishe Momme" or the understated passion of Jimmy Hartman's "Exodus" to understand the connections they felt with what the material represented and how they capture it in performance.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Imperfectionists: What is a Novel

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Tom Rachman's debut novel, The Imperfectionists, has been one of the most hyped books of the year. That it is an engrossing read is unquestionable, but whether it should be considered a novel, on the other hand, is open to some debate. The book is a collection of short stories all connected by the characters' affiliation with an English language newspaper operating in Rome. One is a freelance Paris correspondent at the end of his career. Another is the obituary writer and editor of the puzzle page. There is the current publisher, the editor in chief and the chief financial officer, not very affectionately known as "Accounts Payable." Characters central in one story are sometimes mentioned in others, but for the most part each story most often deals with the protagonist's personal life and stands alone.

There are certainly thematic connections: the central figures are certainly "imperfectionists." There are older men with problems with younger women. There are lonely women demeaning themselves for faux romance. There are people who are unable to adapt to the demands of the new media environment. Moreover they are all attached to a central spine between stories detailing the history of the newspaper (modeled on the International Herald Tribune), much in the way individual stories are connected in such classics as The Canterbury Tales and Boccaccio's Decameron. These are two or three page glimpses into significant dates in the paper's history: its inception, the hiring of new blood, the changes in the publishing family.

The nice thing about this kind of structure is that if you find one story and its characters not to your taste, there is always going to be another one you may like better. The problem is that the stories that don't interest you may get in the way of those that do. Advantage or disadvantage, is a work of fiction structured in this way really something that should be called a novel?

If by novel you mean a long work of prose fiction, it most certainly is a novel. If, on the other hand, a novel is a long work of fiction with a central through line that unifies the whole, then perhaps you need some other kind of generic marker for Rachman's book. One thinks of other works of fiction that collect shorter pieces with some common theme: James Joyce's Dubliners for example, Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio. These are collections with even subtler connections than Rachman's that have been sometimes characterized as novels, although most often they have been treated as short story collections. On the other hand, a large scale work like John Dos Passos' U.S.A. that not only tells multiple stories, often stories that have few, if any, connections, but also includes a number of other narrative elements, is usually thought of as a novel.

The novel as a genre has always been difficult to define. From its beginnings, wherever they might be marked, there have always been works that have defied classification for one reason or another: Gulliver's Travels, most of the fiction of Daniel Defoe, Rablais—the list could go on and on. Almost from its very inception, the novel has been a form that has given reign to experimentation of one sort or another, and perhaps this has been its greatest strength. Experimentation can allow the form to meet the needs and tastes of new generations of readers. A generation with an attention span accustomed to the sound bite, flash fiction and the ten minute play may well find they prefer their novels chopped into shorter pieces that can be digested in parts.

Whatever you call it, The Imperfectionists is well wrought piece of fiction deserving of all the accolades it has received. Whether it is a harbinger for the future of fiction remains to be seen.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Mandelbaum in the Movies

The news that they were looking for extras for the made for television motion picture they were shooting in Kittaning reached Mandelbaum weeks after it reached everyone else in town. Mandelbaum didn’t read the papers. Mandelbaum didn’t communicate much with his neighbors. Mandlebaum would as soon listen to the voice of the devil as WKIT, the voice of Kittaning. Because he had no relatives, he had no relatives to speak with, but if he had had relatives, it is not likely he would have had much to say to them in any case. In fact even the news that there was a made for television motion picture being shot in Kittaning, didn’t reach Mandelbaum until weeks after that shooting had begun.

Had his neighbors thought to tell him about it, they would have quickly put the thought out of their minds, since Mandelbaum, they all knew very well, Mandelbaum was a private person, a massive hulk of a private person who was prone to meet a friendly greeting with a grunt and a scowl under the best of circumstances. And while the whole town might be agape and agog with movies and movie stars, what would such things be to Mandelbaum. Besides for all anyone knew, the man might not even own a television set, and if he did, was it at all likely that he would watch such a thing as a made for television motion picture. So it was with surprise bordering on shock that the good people of Kittaning arose one morning to find Mandelbaum leading the sun down Main Street, made for television motion picture makers beginning their day quite early, to the front of the Super Bee Market where that day’s shooting was to take place.

“Look,” said the early rising paperboy pointing.

“I see,” shrugged the driver of the schoolbus.

Their surprise was even greater when he walked straight up to that eminent man in the baseball cap and jeans, a man of such importance that the fraying of his shirt collar and the scuffing on his shoes went unnoticed, or at least uncommented upon, by all those around him; walked right up to the great man who was clamping his teeth down on a poppy seed bagel shmeared heavily with cream cheese and announced: “I am here.”

“For what?” said the paperboy.

“For what?” said the neighbors to each other.

“For what?” asked the nonplussed minions of the celebrated mucher of bagels.

“I see that,” said the great man, who had not become great a great man by allowing anything as inconsequential as an ignorance of circumstances to prevent him from taking control whatever the situation, “I’ve been waiting.”

He finished chewing his bagel, surveying the bulky body of Mandelbaum as he chewed, waiting perhaps for some clue as to who this man was and what it was that he was here for, perhaps not caring at all. For when no clarification was forthcoming, he simply called to his assistant, pointed to Mandelbaum, and said: “He is here.” This cogent remark he punctuated with another large bite into the bagel which clearly indicated to the assistant that no further explanation would be forthcoming.

“Follow me, please,” the assistant smiled at Mandelbaum.

And Mandelbaum followed him. Followed him to the assistant’s assistant, to whom the assistant said with all the authority of an aspirant to greatness: “He is here.” And with that he turned and walked away in search of his own poppy seed bagel.

The assistant’s assistant looked up Mandelbaum and down, hoping perhaps for some indication of what was to be done, but with nothing forthcoming in a timely fashion, and loathe to indicate indecisiveness by any failure to act he said, “Come with me.”

And Mandelbaum was led to a young man with a note pad who took him to a younger man without a note pad who introduced him to an older man with a neatly trimmed beard who brought him to a red haired woman in a tee shirt that read: “I’m With Stupid,” and showed an arrow pointing to the right. The red haired woman pointed Mandelbaum to a high stool standing before a mirror, covered him with a sheet like cloth, and began to cover his face with some sort of greasy substance.

“You here for the heavy?” she asked.

“I’m here,” muttered Mandelbaum.

“I thought they were bringing in a name from the coast,” she opined.

“Mmm,” mumbled Mandelbaum. Polite converation was an indulgence he allowed himself. Instead he sat quietly as she painted his face, etched a red line of scar on his left cheek, clipped a few hairs from his nostrils, and rose obediantly as she pointed him to a pinstriped suit, a black shirt and a bow tie. Mandelbaum looked at the clothes as if he didn’t comprehend what cothes were for.

“They’re waiting,” the redheaded woman said.

Mandelbaum did not move.

“Put it on,” she said indicating the suit.

Mandelbaum looked for someplace to change.

“Hurry,” she shouted, “they’re waiting.”

Shrugging his shoulders, Mandelbaum dropped his pants and forced his massive frame into the waiting clothes which although a little tight managed to withstand the thrust of his efforts.

The redheaded woman, watching the stuffing of the suit with some fear for its seams, but realizing that it was not her place to question the great or even the near great for that matter, called over to where the camera had been set up: “He’s here.” And she pushed him gently forward.

“Ah, here he is,” said the man with the neatly trimmed beard.

“He’s here,” called the young man without the note pad to the young man with the note pad, who checked his note pad and finding nothing, escorted Mandelbaum back to the assistant’s assistant.

“Here,” he said.

The assistant’s assistant looked at Mandelbaum and as if the addition of the scar to the left cheek had awakened some recognition in him, led him proudly off to the assistant, at whom he smiled knowingly.

“Here’s the man.”

The assistant, disoriented for the moment, didn’t recognize Mandelbaum. He had been busily checking so many things. He stared at the scar. He stared at the pinstripped suit. These he remembered, not on the body of Mandelbaum, but these he remembered. And then it came to him: the great man, the poppy seed bagel, the cream cheese. This was the actor that had been entrusted to his care. And looking at him in make up and costume he had done well.

“We’re here,” he called.

The great man looked at Mandelbaum approvingly. “Well done,” he thought.

“Check his light,” he said.

Two months later when Mandelbaum left for Hollywood, his neighbors may have been surprised, or maybe they were not. Mandelbaum was a private man. They knew so little of him. Who knew what he had inside.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Music Review: Acoustic Project Laura Cortese

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Acoustic Project is an eclectic seven track EP for a most unconventional string quartet put together by fiddler, vocalist Laura Cortese. The other musicians are Natalie Haas on the cello, Brittany Haas on the five string fiddle, and Hanneke Cassel on the fiddle. Cortese wrote the music for five of the songs, as well as the lyrics for two. The varied tracks echo with traditional fiddle Blue Grass and Cajun influences as well as pop and jazz lines. Lyrics cross genres as well, with nods to traditional folk ballads as in "Wade on In" and pop disillusion in "Overcome." Cortese has a voice that can drip with ironic sweetness or soar with driving passion at times complementing the pulsating strings, at times struggling against them. Her EP is a masterful blend of sound and sense (with apologies to Alexander Pope. Acoustic Project is the work of a true artist.

Two of the tracks are instrumentals: "5 Tune" which features Brittany Haas' five string fiddle and "Du Petit Sarny et Reel a Deux" two pieces in the traditional mode by French Canadian fiddler, Eric Favreau. There are also some nice opportunities for solo work in the arrangements of many of the other tracks. The traditional "Greasy Coat" ends the EP with a kind of homage to the fiddle's Blue Grass roots. "Women of the Ages" contrasts prettily plucked strings with John Beaton's bleak lyric spoken by mothers who have lost sons, widows, and women who have been left pregnant. "We're the women of the ages," wails the chorus, "wooed to walk the aisles of grief;/we're the wear on well worn pages/where posterity retraces deeds of men in bold relief."

Corteses' lyrics can be equally bleak. "Overcome" is the quiet assessment of a relationship when the passionate moment is over. The lover has left the bed and remorse has set in. Ironically the singer listens to the traffic "whispering my indiscretion" as the lover gazes out the window looking for an answer that he can't find. "Wade on In" is a seduction ballad that looks back in its dialogue form to the Middle Ages and the Popular Ballad. "Perfect Tuesdays" is a kind of modern plaint over loneliness and sham relationships:

                   To all you strangers out there listening
In vintage suits, printed tees and straight fit jeans
It's not the same when I know it's just game
You're not the one just the boy of the weeks it seems.

According to her press release, Acoustic Project is the second release in a three part EP series to be followed by a full length album. The first of the series Two Amps, One Microphone came out earlier this year. Cortese teamed with Jefferson Hamer and recorded a program of "Celtic-influenced American rock songs" after a year of performing together. Hamer's website says that the EP, which contains nine tracks, is only available as yet at live concerts. The play list includes Cortese's "Wade on In" and "Overcome" as well as songs by Hamer and Gram Parsons' "A Song For You." Some of the songs from the album are available free on the "KCBS In-Studio Performances Podcast" from iTunes.

You can check out "Perfect Tuesdays" on Cortese's website as well as one of her duets with Hamer: "Let's Get Rowdy." Check it out. If you like the fiddle, if you like modern folk rock, hell if you like music, you'll like Laura Cortese.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Book Review: Ablutions Patrick deWitt

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Think of a novel like William Kennedy's Ironweed; think of Eugene O'Neill's play, The Iceman Cometh. Put them in a painting by an artist like George Grosz, and you've got a good idea about what Patrick deWitt's debut novel Ablutions is like. Set most of the time in a Los Angeles bar peopled with a cast of drunks and lowlifes, it is narrated by an alcoholic barback whose own life is rapidly falling apart. These are not mild mannered drunks played for laughs. They are not even Falstaffian reprobates that are at least jolly good company, if not very admirable human beings. These are the dregs and outcasts drowning their misery in booze and drugs.

Presented as notes for a novel, the narrator seems to be jotting down little reminders of things he needs to talk about when he gets around to writing this novel that more than likely will never get written, or at least to understand these people and perhaps at the same time understand himself. Many times a section will begin with the imperative, discuss. "Discuss the regulars," the book begins. "Discuss the ingesting of pills in the storage room. . . ." "Discuss the effects of the full moon on the weekend crowds. . . ." It is as if the act of putting things on paper will somehow get at truth. "It bothers you to know that the truth will never reveal itself spontaneously and you keep on your toes for clues."

Many of the passages are little character sketches of the 'regulars' and the staff. Curtis is a black man with a "law enforcement fetish." He sports an empty holster and mirrored sunglasses. He started as a model customer tipping freely, but gradually became annoying looking to freeload. Simon, the manager, is a South African with pretentions to an acting career and a coke habit. Sam is a drug dealer who brings his kids with him when he conducts business at the bar. Raymond draws furtively on napkins which he keeps hidden from prying eyes while he sits at the bar. There are crack addicts, whores, petty thieves, transvestites, has been actors, and actor wannabees, and what they all have in common is the need to find some kind of excitement, some kind of escape from the emptiness of their lives.

And although, as the narrator begins to record his observations, he seems to be looking at these people as a kind of freak show, but it isn't long before he finds himself in much the same condition. His is the story of a man's descent into the depths of an alcoholic oblivion and then his somewhat futile attempts to dig his way out.

While the subject matter here smacks of 19th century naturalism, Ablutions is no Zolaesque social treatise. This is black comedy. These may not be loveable drunks of the Foster Brooks variety, but they are ridiculously laughable in their inadequacies. Attempts at relationships disintegrate into ineffectual sexual encounters at best and disgusting humiliations at worst. Friendships last as long as the drinks and money hold out. More often than not a night's drinking ends up in vomiting and passing out, bleeding and passing out, or just plain passing out. Vows to quit drinking are treated as jokes one beer at a time. Whether it is the narrator or the people he describes, these are not tragic figures; they are overwhelmed by a world they can't handle. Drugs and alcohol merely disguise their inadequacies, and not for very long, at that.

Ablutions is a nightmare vision that will have you chuckling and then wondering what you were laughing about. The story reeks of honesty, but it is the honesty of nausea and excrement. It gives you a view of the nightmare from a distance, and from a distance is most surely the best way to view it.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Music Review: Live in Vienna Lang Lang

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Charisma, flair, drama, passion—these are the terms most often used to describe 27 year old Chinese pianist virtuoso, Lang Lang. He has star quality. He steps out on stage and the atmosphere is electric. And besides all that, he can play with the best of them. It is not all that strange then, that at a time when the audience for classical music is aging and seats in concert halls are often going unfilled, a musician like Lang Lang would be touted as the great hope for the future of serious music. It is not all that strange that Sony would sign him to a three million dollar recording contract.

Live in Vienna is the first fruit of that contract. The two disc CD was recorded during February and March of this year at Vienna's historic Musikverein, perhaps best known to American audiences for the annual PBS broadcast of the New Year's concerts of the Vienna Philharmonic. The venue is of interest because Sony is also releasing the recital on DVD and Blue Ray, and the venerable setting is a visual symbol of classical music's traditions. The Blue Ray will include a 3D video in an attempt to merge tradition with new technologies.

The first disc contains two of Beethoven's sonatas, the early Sonata No. 3 in C Major, Op. 2 and the much more well known Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, Op. 57, the "Appasionata." In the notes to the CD, Lang Lang says that although Sonata No. 3 is an early work, it already shows signs of the composer's maturity and the strength of his personality. The "Appasionata," on the other hand is one of those works central not only to Beethoven, but central to the repertoire. Although some may ask why another recording of such an old chestnut, it is truly a work that has the kind of emotional impact especially suited to the bravura style of the pianist. Lang Lang says: "It's like an enormous volcano beneath the surface, a dark environment, hidden and needing to be explored." And explore it he does, both with evocative dynamics and rhythmic nuance.

Disc 2 begins with Isaac Albeniz's Iberia, Book I in three movements. The pianist emphasizes the varied rhythms in the work and notes the folk influences as well as the soft focus coloring of the French Impressionists. This is followed by Sonata No. 7 in B-Flat Major, Op. 83 by Prokofiev, sometimes called the "Stalingrad," one of the "War Sonatas." As passionate in a modern idiom as the Beethoven's are in the Romantic, the piece gives the artist an opportunity to recreate what he calls a "warlike mood."

Three Chopin encores conclude the recital. There is an etude and a waltz, but the central piece is the Polonaise No. 6 in A-Flat Major, Op. 53, the famous "Heroic" Polonaise. This, of course, is one of the great piano show pieces. Like the "Appasionata," it offers the pianist an opportunity to showcase his skills in the context of all those virtuosos who have gone before. Lang Lang's performance has all the drama of the best of them.

Live in Vienna offers a nice variety while focusing on the strengths of the artist. There is a mix of the less familiar and the well known. There is plenty of opportunity for skilled dexterity. There is a range of emotion. Lang Lang knows how to choose his repertoire, and it is all played with a consummate skill and technique. If this CD is any indication, he may indeed be just what is needed to develop a new audience for classical music; he is without doubt just the tonic necessary to reinvigorate the old one. Three million may be just about the right price for such a talent.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Music Review: Sa Belle Belle Ba Leni Stern

This article was first published at Blogcritics

I guess the first time I really got interested in the fusion of the pop music aesthetic with world music was back in the eighties when Paul Simon resurrected himself with his award winning Graceland album. Certainly there had been world music influences in some of Simon's earlier music, "Mother and Child Reunion" for example, but the new album suggested a commitment beyond a single here and there. Collaborating with musical groups like Ladyship Black Mambazo and Los Lobos, he combined multicultural rhythms with his trademark poetic lyrics to produce gems like "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes" and "All Around the World or The Myth of Fingerprints." The Rhythm of the Saints which followed never had the same success, but it did show a similar cultural outreach.

There is a lot about Leni Stern's new CD Sa Belle Belle Ba that reminds me of Simon's landmark album. She comes to world music with a successful resume as a jazz guitarist and infuses track after track with swinging guitar riffs and mellow highlights. Listen to the twanging guitar punctuating the vocal on "Nan Jeya" and the electrical improvisation on "Born Bad." There is also some nice improvisation on the kora (a 21 string West African lute like instrument) by Yakouba Sissoko in the Arabic flavored "Yakhai Bi Khali" and the lilting "Souma Chamon." She makes it her business to collaborate with authentic voices. Guest musicians include Haruna Samake, Ami Sacko, Bouba Sacko, Bassekou Kouyate and Zoumana Tareta. They join Stern in chorus and with individual solo work, most often providing an African counterpoint to her English lyrics. For example listen to the choral background to the bluesy "Smoke's Risin'." It is unfortunate that individual solo work isn't always credited in the album notes.

Her English lyrics range from the deceptive simplicity of "Souma Chamon" and "Sera" to the poetic eloquence of "Now I Close My Heart" that begs comparison with Simon at his best. There is a prayer like quality to her paean to Africa the motherland of humanity, "Farafina Cadi." She combines English lyrics with African and Arabic lyrics, in a sense illustrating the need to go beyond linguistic barriers and find the humanity that fills us all. In the same way her fusion of musical genres symbolizes her desire for cultural fusion. So, for example, there is the combination of traditional African chants with rap on the title song, "Sa Belle Belle Ba." She melds jazzy blues and a swinging electric guitar solo to a backdrop of African rhythms in "Born Bad."

Leni Stern has explained that the title of her new CD is a warning about the dangers of snakes, both the reptilian and the two legged variety. "Sa" means snake in what I assume is Bambara the official language of Mali. "Ba" means big, and "belle," very. The world, it seems, is filled with very big snakes, and we would do best to be on our guard. In notes provided in the promotional material for the album, Stern tells a lengthy story about how she was encouraged by singer Ami Sacko to go to see particularly powerful sorcerer to assure the success of their work on the album. The sorcerer advised that she needed to ride a wild white horse every morning for seven days. She took the advice and one day she discovered a boa constrictor near the sorcerer's home. She became frightened until she was assured that the snake was dead. It was then that she began writing the song, "the image of the snake," she says, "etched" in her mind. The story is another testament to Stern's commitment to cross cultural pollination: a passion that is the theme of her album.

Jazz, folk, blues, rock, pop, rap, world music—pick your poison; it's all there on Leni Stern's new CD, Sa Belle Belle Ba. Whether she's singing in Arabic or Bambara or riffing on the electric guitar, Stern's work is emblematic of the South by Southwest World Music Festival motto: "all music is world music." Her songs bridge languages. Her CD is an eclectic collection of fused musical styles and genres. Leni Stern is all music.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Music Review: The Chronicle of a Literal Man Rob Morsberger

This article was first published at Blogcritics

I would imagine singer, composer Rob Morsberger must be getting tired of reading all the comparisons that critics are so constantly making as they attempt to define and label him and his music for the audience as yet to hear him. He is a "Tom Petty/Bob Dylan hybrid," says one critic. He has the kind of "hyperliterate" style that "went out of style when Warren Zevon died," says another. His latest is done with "an Elvis (Costello)-esque mix of wit and grit." And that's not all, there's Tom Waits, Rufus Wainwright, Robbie Robertson and a touch of Randy Newman. But if he is, he's just going to have to live with it, because in each and every one of these comparisons there is much more than the proverbial granular truth.

Witness his latest CD, his fourth, The Chronicle of a Literal Man, a compilation of ten richly original compositions ranging from the anthemic title track to the lilting rhythms of "Stroke of Insight," from the introspective "Nebraska in Winter" to the rumbling passions of "Old Jolly Farm." His lyrics are dense with allusion, metaphor and creative rhyming. He writes lyrics that will reward the kind of explicative analysis usually accorded to the finest of poets. Often he seems to create so many voices not his own (to paraphrase one of those fine poets) to speak the speech, or more appropriately to sing the song (as in "Nebraska in Winter"). Moreover, he embeds his lyrics in tunes with melodies that will as often as not keep listeners humming.

Certainly his lyrics are literate; indeed they may be too literate. They are filled with references that will be meaningful to most listeners only with some kind of gloss by way of album notes, album notes that are not supplied with the CD, although all the lyrics are provided. While no doubt he isn't writing for the typical pop audience, his lyrics tend towards the kind of idiosyncratic allusion that sends one to Google. "Where is the Song" refers to an unnamed revolution in 1848. The speaker cries out from exile to a Natalia. In a recent interview, Morsberg says that the song is about Russian revolutionary, Alexander Herzen. Of course without his comment, I'm not sure how the audience is supposed to know that. "Old Jolly Farm," burial site of civil rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman may be more identifiable to some. "Modestine," it turns out is the name of a donkey in Robert Louis Stevenson's Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, certainly not among that author's most well known works. "The Chronicle of a Literal Man" deals with the motion picture, Papillon and morphs into a riff on McCarthyism and the screen writer Dalton Trumbo.

Is it necessary to understand all these allusions to enjoy the music? That is the question. While there is no question that understanding the lyric adds much to the enjoyment of music, it is also true that musical success has never depended solely on the comprehension of the lyrics. We don't have to understand what we are hearing to find it powerfully moving. Indeed, one might argue that not completely understanding the composer's intentions allows the listener to read his own meanings into what he is hearing.

A case in point: before Googling Modestine, I heard the line, "You're my beast of burden." My first thought was The Rolling Stones. At the end of the song come the lines: "You're the queen /of my world/please don't make an ass of me/Modestine." What I heard was a love song. The fact that it later turns out that it's a love song to an ass, only adds to the irony.

Morsberger's metaphors and similes remind me of nothing so much as the conceits of the seventeenth century Metaphysical poets, poets like John Donne and George Herbert. Depression, "the density of sadness" is "just like eating a stone." Life should not be like "an independent movie," a speaker in the song of the same name advises. Another song tells a friend complaining about his life: "If your life is God's idea of a sick joke/at least it’s a joke he's playing on you."
He likes creative rhymes: "them or us/Spartacus," Steve McQueen/ final scene," "pay your debt/cigarette," all in the title song. Scattered through the others are rhymes you might not ordinarily expect: "of vision/derision," "defective/perspective," "alter/falter," "a while/exile." He also gets some nice effects with off-rhymes. I should note that he tends to shy away from these kinds of poetic indulgences which focus more on wit than sincerity when he is looking for something more emotionally charged as in "Old Jolly Farm" and "Nebraska in Winter." These are written in a much more straightforward manner.
Morsberger does the lead vocals and plays keyboards. Robin Gould is on the drums, Jon Herington, electric and acoustic guitars, and Paul Ossola plays electric and upright base. Listen to them wail at the end of "You Don't Get It," the last of the album's songs. Jim Hynes does some nice work on the flugelhorn with the syncopated rhythms of "Modestine."

If you miss the late Warren Zevon, if you're looking for some of that Costello-esque wit, if Tom Waits or Bob Dylan or Rufus Wainwright is your thing, give Rob Morsberger a listen. You won't regret it.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Top Chef Tops

hioiThis article was first published at Blogcritics

I've been a fan of Top Chef ever since its first season in 2005 when Harold won out over Tiffani and the host was Katie Lee, and I've been following the show religiously as it is now in the middle of its seventh season. Occasionally I have dallied with other cooking reality shows, but never with the kind of devotion I have lavished on Top Chef. What is that cliché about first love?

Iron Chef America has glitz, but these are master chefs on parade. They would seem to have little on the line. They are more or less showing off. Hell's Kitchen is more about Gordon Ramsey's sadistic humiliation of contestants, than it is about cooking. Chopped and its mystery basket with anything from jelly beans to sardines has a kind of surreal appeal, but it since each episode is self contained, viewers are not likely to bond with individual contestants as they do when chefs are eliminated over a period of weeks. The Next Food Network Star solves that problem, but then the judges are as much concerned with a chef's star quality as they are with her cooking. Critiques of their on camera performance are as important in keeping contestants around as the taste of their food.

In a way you would think this should be a plus for the show. After all those of us watching at home, as none other than Top Chef host/judge Tom Colicchio pointed out in an interview on a Salon Magazine podcast awhile back , have no way of knowing how the food the chef's produce tastes. He was talking about the critical mail they often received complaining that the judges had made a mistake deciding which of the chefs should be sent to "pack their knives." At least when it comes to on camera personality, viewers have a reasonable basis on which to make a judgment. While this may well be true, I don't know that rationality has anything to do with the popularity of these shows. Moreover, it is clear that a reality show contestant's personalities are more likely to depend on selective editing than on anything else.

This is not to say that Top Chef doesn't indulge in creative editing. The show is as much concerned with creating heroes and villains as its cooking and non-cooking relatives. They just seem to do it so well. There hasn't been a show where I haven't found someone to dislike, sometimes someone to detest. In that first season there was Stephen. In the second season there was the smarmy Marcel. Season five had the know-it-all Stefan. There are the loveable losers: Miguel in the first season, Ron in season six, and of course, Fabio in season five. Then in the end when it comes to choosing a winner, it usually turns out to be one of the good guys, Hosea in season five, or one of the good gals, Stephanie, the first female winner in the fourth season. No question manipulation is the name of the game, but manipulation so adept who could wish away (with apologies to Samuel Johnson). The Next Food Network Star isn't in the same league.

And now we're in season seven. The chefs are in Washington DC. John, the strange man with the hair, was gone quickly. The outspoken Tracey was sent packing in the third episode. Stephen, the jokester, went last week with over cooked rice. The seemingly inept Amanda and the accident prone Alex are still around. There is a possible cheating scandal over some vanishing pea puree. The alpha males Kenny and Angelo are battling for top dog. Maybe we can't taste the tamales that beat out Kevin's attempt at Indian cuisine and Kelly's carpaccio and won thousand dollars for soon to be married Tiffany, but it sure feels like the right person won. And after all is said and done, isn't feelings what this is all about? Besides, I don't have the vaguest idea what carpaccio is and I couldn't tell a real curry from a fake on a bet.

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Elephant Keeper Reviewed

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Christopher Nicholson's new historical novel, The Elephant Keeper, is set in England in the second half of the eighteenth century. It begins in 1773 when, Tom Page, the keeper of the title, is asked by the current owner of the elephant and his employer to write a history of his association with the animal including an explanation of his own capability to communicate with it. Unsure of his abilities with the pen, Tom demurs for awhile, makes a couple of false starts and is finally encouraged to tell the story in his own way without worrying about literary niceties. With that he goes back to his beginnings and his first acquaintance with the elephant and her brother when they arrive in England and are purchased by the wealthy merchant he works for as a groom. The novel follows Tom's experiences working with at least one of the elephants for a number of different owners, as he devotes his life to her care. Their relationship is less one of animal and trainer than it is of friends. In a very real sense, this is the love story of a man and an elephant.

Nicholson's depiction of eighteenth century England is spot on. Class differences are clearly marked. Servants and villagers are subject to the whims of the upper classes. Benevolent aristocrats may treat them well, but all the wealthy are not benevolent. Rural life for the lower classes tended to be insulated. Cities were dirty and crime infested. Sickness and disease were constant worries, and medical treatment was more than likely to be simple quackery. Rich landowners were enthralled with a new craze for romantic landscaping, eschewing the formal gardens of earlier periods in favor of a wilder scenic vista including things like a hermit's cottage equipped with its own hermit, a man-made lake, an obelisk. For those with a scientific bent there might be a collection of extraordinary flora and fauna. British ships were bringing new undreamed of exotica back from their journeys: everything from monkeys to bananas; though they never were able to bring back one of the mermaids so often seen by sailors. Superstition was rampant.
Not quite a picaresque novel of the kind written during the period, the novel is more a collection of incidents in the lives of Tom and the female elephant he calls Jennie, than it is a coherently plotted story. Although one might well see Tom and Jennie as a post modern commentary on the more traditional combination of the picaresque hero and his companion, Don Quixote and Sancho Pannza. Indeed, in some respect this may not be that much of a stretch. The somewhat controversial ending of the book where a modern author appears in a research facility surveying the remains of elephants that died in captivity in England reads much like something you would expect to see in modern meta-fiction. Undoubtedly there is something in the novel's inconclusive conclusion that will remind readers of John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman.

Moreover, the novel raises an interesting aesthetic question about the relationship between truth and fiction. At the start, Tom Page is constantly concerned with providing some kind of objective truth in his writing, but he can only begin to write when he is assured that he need only deal with what he determines to be the truth. He must learn the value of subjective truth, a value that was becoming more and more prevalent in the period in which the novel is set. Add to this the idea that often you can get at truth more effectively through falsehood—a thesis set forward by a painter commissioned to paint a portrait of Jennie, when Tom complains that the painting is a purposeful misrepresentation, and later repeated by the owner of a menagerie creating tall tales about his animals. This paradoxical view of the nature of truth becomes a staple of the next century's aesthetics.

Indeed, Tom's own narrative gradually seems to move away from any attempt at objective truth in favor of a more subjective reality. Early in his writing, when he is credited with being able to speak to the elephant, he is quick to deny it, and explain her training. As the years go on, he begins to speak to Jennie and Jennie answers. Not only does she answer, but she comforts him when he is troubled, philosophizes about life in captivity and its parallel to the human condition. More and more as the novel progresses, she becomes the voice of wisdom. While certainly, Tom is putting his own thoughts and feelings into the mouth of the elephant, the power of those feelings is emphasized dramatically.

The Elephant's Keeper is the story of one man's devotion to the creature he loves, his refusal to listen to the complaint that she's "only an elephant." It is not a case of merely attributing human characteristics to animals. The world of The Elephant Keeper is one where as often as nor men behave like beasts, and animals behave with honor. It is a story of a man who comes to see that there is little to distinguish between man and beast: "I feel a kinship with these creatures. We inhabit the same world; we breathe the same air, beneath the same sky. . . . Why do philosophers always look for differences instead of likenesses?" References throughout to the fourth book of Gulliver's Travels are not without relevance. This is a story that may well get you too talking to elephants, or horses if no elephants are handy.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Elephant Keeper The Elephant Keeper by Christopher Nicholson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Historical novel set in the 18th century is essentially a love story between a man and an elephant.

View all my reviews >>

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Music (I wouldn't call it a) Review: F. a Leo Roberto Cipelli

Article first published as Touched by Leo Ferre, My Search to Learn More About Roberto Cipelli on Blogcritics.

There is nothing like a pleasant surprise.

The other day, tucked in with a review copy of Matt Herskowitz's Jerusalem Trilogy that came in the mail, was another CD. It was a collection of songs in tribute to French composer and singer, Leo Ferre (there a couple of accent marks necessary over the 'e' in Leo and the last 'e' in Ferre, but word processing ignoramus that I am, have no idea how to get them there---so use your imagination); a composer I must admit I have never heard of. It was the work of a group of jazz musicians led by pianist Roberto Cipelli. I had never heard of Cipelli. I had never heard of any of the other musicians on the album. Moreover the album notes were no help; they were all in French or Italian , and although I had taken two years of college French back in the dim dark days beyond recall, it was only a word or two of the text that I could make out. When I checked to see who it was that was playing the beautiful trumpet solo on track five all I could find was someone playing the tromba. It's not French. Trumpet? Perhaps, but I don't have an Italian dictionary handy.

There was a publicity release with the CD, but it was after all a publicity release, not exactly unbiased reporting. I check the internet, first for Leo Ferre. The Wikipedia entry announces that it has "multiple issues." Wikipedia isn't the best of sources even without "multiple issues." I try the official Leo Ferre site. It's in French. I can't get the Google translator to work. I try a biography site in English. It has a paragraph of about a hundred words. He was born in Monaco in 1916. He was very important in the French song world, equated with the likes of Jacques Brel (at last, someone I've heard of). He was "involved in" anarchism. He died in 1993. He is, the entry concludes, "a great composer and writer of French songs." I give up. The publicity release has more information, although some of it seems to have been taken from the same site I was just surfing. It does add some information about his idea to set the work of some of the great poets to music, although I'm not quite clear about why this is so startlingly original. After all, the idea of setting great poetry to music is not exactly new.

I check the internet for Roberto Cipelli. Again there isn't much. What is there is in Italian, for the most part. He has a web site. The Leo Ferre album is featured. There are some pictures. He seems to have been born in Cremona; it looks like in 1958. That's about all I can get from the web page. He does have a Facebook page. He likes Alice Adams Tucker. I, of course, am not familiar with Alice Adams Tucker, although I'm willing to learn. So, it's back to the publicity release. In this case however there is not much information about the artist. Most of the release talks about the project and the individual tracks, which is fine, fine that is if you want the record label's take on its product.

Anyway, while I'm searching for information, I'm listening to the CD, and damned, if I don't like it. I import it to my iPod. I listen again. I like it again. Indeed, the more I listen, the better I like it. I don't know Roberto Cipelli, but he can swing when he wants to and do just as well with sensitive melodic melancholy. There is some really fine trumpet work by Paolo Fresu. He plays with a clarity of phrasing that is as sweet as anyone around. Their duet on "Colloque sentimental" is a masterly blend of mood and technique, ending with the horn holding a long note while the piano glides over. "Vingt ans" showcases the two musicians in an up tempo mode. Attillio Zanchi plays double bass and Philippe Garcia is on the drums.

There are vocals in French and Italian by Cipelli and Gianmaria Testa. Both have arresting voices in the gravelly straight ahead tradition of the French song stylists. They whisper of passion. Though there are lyrics printed for all the vocals, they are all in French and Italian. I have no idea what they're singing, but somehow it doesn't matter. Although I don't mean to suggest that I would turn my nose up at some nice English translation, if it had been kindly provided.

Not all of the songs are by Ferre. There is an Italian song, "Lontano, Lontano" by Luigi Tenco. "Free Poetique" is a chaotic piece by Cipelli which he feels capture's Ferre's poetic spirit in music. Cesase Pavese's poem, Il Blues dei Bluess is set to the music of "Saint-Germain-Des-Pres." There is even a poem of Paul Verlaine scattered through the tracks of the disc. The album is not intended as a collection of new arrangements of Ferre's work, rather it is, according to Cipelli, his attempt "to revisit it in his own personal way." Whether he succeeds in capturing the spirit of Ferre, I cannot tell you. What I can tell you is this. He has succeeded in producing a haunting album of music that almost transcends the need for meaning.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering GeniusA Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Self conscious, almost post modern attempt to deal with the loss of both parents, the obligation to care for a younger brother, and make one's way in the world. In a sense, Eggers reminds me, as far as technical games with form are concerned, of a poor man's David Foster Wallace.

View all my reviews >>

Monday, July 12, 2010

Production photo from Mckeespot Litttle Theatre's "And Then There Were None."

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Mini Review

Darkest Fear (Myron Bolitar, #7) Darkest Fear by Harlan Coben

My rating: 1 of 5 stars
By the numbers thriller--even including a superman style sidekick; few surprises in a rather absurd plot, but at least it reads quickly.

View all my reviews >>

Monday, June 28, 2010

DVD Review: Jennie: Lady Randolph Churchill

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Jennie: Lady Randolph Churchill, the PBS miniseries first broadcast in 1975, is now available on a two disc DVD set. In seven episodes, the series takes the American born Jennie Jerome from her whirlwind courtship and marriage to the younger son of one of the great British aristocratic families to her death after a fall necessitated an amputation of one of her ankles. While the series includes capable performances by a number of notable English actors—Ronald Pickup as Lord Randolph, Warren Clark as Winston, Jeremy Brett as Count Kinsky, perhaps the love of her life, it is Lee Remick's bravura turn as the effervescent enchanting Jennie that is the life's blood of this production.

Remick takes the character from age nineteen in the first episode to her sixties at the time of her death, and is equally adept at playing the passion of youth and the industry of the middle years as she is the dwindling powers of age. She is no less able to charm in her later years than she was in her early days. One can readily believe that even as a mother of two she was well able to attract the attentions of two men as young as her sons. That younger men would be interested in marriage with a woman of her wit and vigor as embodied by Remick is entirely believable. If Jennie mesmerized those around her, Remick's performance no less mesmerizes the audience.

Lady Randoloph, as she says in one of the later episodes, was a woman who lived her life as she felt it should be lived and not as others thought she should live it. Americans abroad in the middle of the nineteenth century were more often than not seen as unsophisticated barbarians, ill equipped to deal with the cultivated Europeans. One only has to read Henry James and Edith Wharton to get some idea of the attitudes towards Americans in the period. They were naïve parvenus who, if they were good natured and had money, were easily taken advantage of, and if they only had money they could be treated as social climbers ready to trade wealth for position and ripe for the fleecing. Not Jennie, at least not as she is presented in this biodrama. Jennie Jerome had wit, beauty, ambition, and grace. She was nobody's fool. She had a captivating personality, and captivate she did, even though she didn't have the one thing that made most Americans attractive to the Europeans, especially second sons, money.

From the first she is presented as unique. The first view we have of her she is racing on horseback with her father (played by Dan O'Herlihy). She plays the piano, not like an amateur, but with the skill of a professional. She has a mind of her own. Lord Randolph sees her at a ball and it is love at first sight. This despite the fact that he dances poorly, doesn't care for small talk, and is not exactly a matinee idol. He attracts her because his ambition is to be a great man, and she can help him.

The series, written by Julian Mitchell, is episodic. They meet and marry in the first epsode. The next three episodes deal with their marriage and Lord Randolph's political career. In the fifth installment, after Randolph's death, Jennie meets George Cornwallis-West who is the same age as Winston and they marry, despite the objections of his family. The sixth episode deals with their marital problems and eventual divorce. In the final episode she marries again, but dies before a planned trip to join her new husband in Africa. Throughout, the focus on Jennie and her loves is complimented by a broader concern with British politics, social mores, military campaigns and moral behavior.

While the jacket notes that the quality of the picture and sound may be flawed at times because of the age of the programs, these flaws are minimal and are rarely intrusive. The second disc includes a written biography of Lee Remick and a history of Blenheim Palace (the 300 year old seat of the Marlboroughs ) which provides some of the location shots for the program. There are also filmographies of the cast. Over all there is nothing particularly exciting about the extra material. But with over 360 minutes of broadcast material, the DVD set more than likely supplies more than enough excitement for most viewers.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Production shot from Murder in the Cathederal, 2007, Poet's Corner.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

First Among Sequels (Thursday Next, #5) First Among Sequels by Jasper Fforde

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Fforde does his thing, parodying the real world with his heroine who can travel back and forth between the world of books and the world of the outlanders. He likes puns and word games, and the logic of illogic: M. C. Esher in prose.

View all my reviews >>

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Genius and the Goddess The Genius and the Goddess by Jeffrey Meyers

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Reviews the lives of Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller in preparation for a discussion of their relationship and marriage. Does some ananlysis of Miller's work, especially the work written for Marilyn, The Misfits and the lesser known work after the marital breakup.

Marilyn's doctors, the men who used her and the hangers on like the Strassbergs are dealt with most harshly.

View all my reviews >>

Friday, June 18, 2010

Book Review: Fists by Pietro Grossi

This article was first published at Blogcritics

First published in Italian in 2006, Pietro Grossi's collection of three short stories, Fists, is now available in an English translation by Howard Curtis. And if these stories are any indication of Grossi's talent, the translation comes much too late. His prose has the deceptive simplicity of a Hemingway overlaid with the tantalizing ambiguity of a writer like Paul Auster. It is the kind of writing that sneaks up on the reader and leaves him with the sense that he has come into contact with something extraordinary. Grossi's subjects are the events that change lives, the kinds of charged experiences that James Joyce found led to epiphanies.

"Boxing," the first of the stories, describes the great match of two young fighter's lives. The narrator, a self identified nerdy momma's boy, who has built himself into an almost mythical fighter despite the fact that he has never actually fought a bout, is finally challenged by a deaf mute bull of a battler who has heard of his reputation. On the one hand, it is a fight that teaches both boxers something about life, something about what it means to be a man. On the other hand, it is a fight that demonstrates that myth need not be destroyed by stubborn reality.

The narrator is known as the Dancer. He is renowned for his finesse and prowess, but it is prowess that has never been tested. His opponent is the Goat. He plugs away at his craft with the dogged obstinacy of his namesake, but more importantly, he has been proven in the ring. For the spectators, the Dancer tells us, the match was a chance to see "the stuff of legends." "They had come there to see if it was really worth telling the stories and believing in them or if, once again, as usually happened, reality would destroy the myth. . . ." It was to be a "battle between dream and reality, between the world as it was and the way we would like it to be."

In "Horses," a father buys his two sons, boys who are at first characterized by stealing drinks from an old woman, each a horse and in doing so changes their lives. Although neither wanted the animals at first they both work at training them, and for one the training becomes a passion, while for the other, if is merely an inconsequential chore to be gotten through before going on to more exciting things. For one brother the city beckons: women, fighting, drugs perhaps. For the other, there is the country and more horses and a life with honor. The story plays an interesting contemporary variation on the city mouse, country mouse theme.

The last story, "The Monkey," is perhaps the least realistic of the three. It concerns a young man who, in the midst of his busy life, is told that an old friend of his has begun to act like a monkey, and is asked to come back to his home town to see if he can help him. The friend has been successful in business and life in general, but as the young man thinks back to their last encounter, he remembers that the man seemed dissatisfied, as if he had found his success empty. He returns to his home, to find that indeed his friend is behaving like a monkey. "He was naked, crouching beside the bed, playing with a little pile of shells, just like a monkey." The story works as a comment on the banality of modern life.

Fists is the kind of book that not only promises a bright future for a talented writer, it is a book that demonstrates that that future is now. These are the kinds of stories that will be favorably compared with Hemingway's Nick Adams stories, Joyce's Dubliners, and Salinger's Nine Stories. They are the kinds of stories readers will find filling the pages of the short fiction anthologies of the future.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Book Review: Just Kids, by Patti Smith

This article was first published at Blogcritics

After some cursory attention to her childhood, Patti Smith moves very quickly to the heart of her new memoir, Just Kids, with her arrival in New York City in the summer of 1967 in pursuit of the artist's life. She has no money. Friends she hoped would put her up are nowhere to be found. Some kind of job in the arts out of reach: she is reduced to living on the streets. And then she meets a young man, an artist almost as destitute as she is herself; there is an affinity right from the start. Their relationship seems to have been almost mystically fated. They pool their meager resources, and Smith begins her "vie boheme," with famed photographer, Robert Maplethorpe.

If you are looking for the story of Patti Smith's career as a rock star, Just Kids isn't where you're going to find it. While she does write something about her music, it only comes at the very end of the book, it is very sketchy at best. She tells more about Maplethorpe's photograph session for the "Horses" album cover than she does about the music itself. This memoir is focused on the period before she became famous. It talks about her poetry; it talks about her drawings, but most of all it talks about her love and friendship for the photographer.

They may have only had enough money to share a hot dog at Nathan's or grilled cheese sandwiches at a local diner, but what they did have was an intense faith in themselves as artists destined to produce work of greatness coupled with a firm belief that to produce art was perhaps man's noblest ambition. "It's the artist's responsibility," she tells us, " to balance mystical communication and the labor of creation." More often than not she talks about art and artists in religious terms. Jim Morrison is "like a West Coast Saint Sebastian." Birdland is "hallowed ground" that was "blessed by John Coltrane." Maplethorpe's "service was to art, not to church or country." She sets off for New York from her South Jersey home like a Joan of Arc in pursuit of her destined glory.

And she finds it. The late sixties in New York were filled with budding painters, musicians, poets, actors with the same kind of devotion, not to mention the bevy artistic wannabees and hangers on in pursuit of their own dreams. There were even those, poets like the Beats, artists like Andy Warhol, who had already found success. There was a ready-made community with similar values always looking for kindred souls, always willing to see greatness in the work of their friends.

Indeed, the most interesting parts of the book are the anecdotes about the great and the near great. Allen Ginsberg, thinking she's a pretty boy, buys Smith a cheese sandwich at the Automat when she is short of money. Gregory Corso, falls asleep in her arm chair while reading her poems, and burns a hole in the arm. She goes out to dinner with Sam Sheppard, not realizing he is a famous playwright. Maplethorpe takes her to meet his Catholic family and tells them they are married. She visits Jim Morrison's grave in Paris and is scolded by an old crone caretaker because Americans have no respect for their poets.

Her own prose is at times very poetic, at times somewhat pretentious. At her best she has a knack for just the right inventive image. The first man walking on the moon is putting "rubber treads on a pearl of the gods." Jim Carroll "shot stuff in his freckled hand, like the darker side of Huckleberry Finn." On the other hand she calls a Bob Dylan obsessed fan's analysis of one of his songs an "endless labyrinth of incomprehensible logic." She says Maplethorpe "sought to elevate aspects of male experience, to imbue homosexuality with mysticism." Often the high flown mystical language makes an ironic contrast to the sleaziness of the one small room they shared at the Chelsea Hotel and the second hand outfits she is constantly describing.

As memoirs go, the most impressive thing about Just Kids is its honesty. Smith's description of her life with Maplethorpe has the ring of truth. She doesn't seem to have tidied things up. Drugs, sex, poverty—they're all there. Nothing is made to look rosy: except that there were two young people and they had their art and they had each other, and for a time that was enough.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Book Review: Body Parts: A Collection of Poems About Aging. by Janet Cameron Hoult

This article was first published at Blogcritics

Robert Browning, in his dramatic monologue "Rabbi Ben Ezra," begins with the Rabbi asserting "Grow old along with me!/The best is yet to be." Not every reader looking at Janet Cameron Hoult's images of old age in the poems in her new anthology, Body Parts: A Collection of Poems About Aging would agree. Poem after poem details the physical breakdowns associated with the 'best' that is yet to come. "Just can't bend over anymore," she tells us in "Anymore." In "Lost in Noise," she tells us "My hearing loss is getting worse," and in "Ringing in My Ears," her tinnitus "rings like a church steeple." In "The Nose Knows," she talks about the loss of the sense of smell, and other poems talk about loss of memory, loss of teeth, not to mention sagging body parts. Of course aging isn't only about loss, there is gain as well: hair in the nose and ears, pain in the joints, wrinkles in the flesh.

And Hoult knows what she's talking about. Certainly, we don't want to confuse the poet with the speaker in her poems, no more than we would want to confuse Browning with the good Rabbi or any of the less reputable speakers in his poems. Poetry is not autobiography; as the author profile on the back cover of Body Parts proudly proclaims, the poet is in her seventies, and though she may well suffer some, even all of the maladies and disorders described in the poems, she and her husband are still actively "chasing solar eclipses, mentoring student rocketeers and visiting their grandchildren and great grandchild." Nevertheless, you can't be in the seventies without at least some experience with the physical decay endemic to aging.

So, let's postulate that Hoult indeed knows what she is talking about. It is significant, then, that despite all the demeaning insults of aging, she can still find like Tennyson's "Ulysses" that "old age has yet his honor and his toil." Poets have long sought the "newer world," the "work of noble note" left to those grown old. They have sought the "abundant recompense" that makes up for the loss of "splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower." The fire and passion of youth may be gone, but there is something new to replace it: a new calmer way of looking at the world, "the philosophic mind." It may well be something less intense, but it may well be something well suited to the later stages of life. Intensity may be overrated when the AARP beckons.

"Choice Parts" is a poem that looks what seniors still have to offer:

Yes, we can make a difference
in this world of ours;
And sharing skills with others
can help to pass the hours.

We have so much experience,
there's so much that we know.
Why don't we share this wisdom
and help young people grow?

It is the choice of the senior to go on living as best she can, or simply die a little more each day. So "let's just keep on, keeping on," she concludes.

In "Memories and Sensations," she talks about the loss of youthful passion in terms very much reminiscent of Wordsworth. She, like him, asks, what can fill us with joy and delight again now that age has drained us of "vital juices." What she concludes is that we have memories: "the sight of a lovely sunset,/the sound of a haunting violin. . ./the touch of a lover's caress." In a somewhat less serious vein, "Compensations" points out that while old age may ravage us physically; those very ravages prevent us from seeing the flaws in those we love. If our significant other snores, our hearing loss lets us sleep peacefully. Since we can't see each other's faces as well anymore, we can't see the gray, the wrinkles, the age spots. Growing old together then is not all bad.

Hoult's poetry is not always so serious. She likes a pun: "Mr. Arthur It is." She plays with Poe's "The Bells" in "Pills" and Joyce Kilmer's "Trees" in "Knees:" "I think that I shall never see/A replacement lovely as a knee." She does a couple of comic turns on the confusion of similar words caused by hearing loss. She pokes some gentle fun at the forgetfulness that haunts us as we get older, the glasses we can never find, the people we can't remember, the car that we parked and lost.

The poems in Body Parts are not written in the cryptic mode of much of modern poetry. Hoult writes with a simple clarity and ease. Her imagery is drawn from experience. The verse patterns are fluid but never the stuff of insipid doggerel. In short, this is an anthology that deals with its subject seriously and with honesty.

Facebook | Photos of You

Facebook Photos of You

Friday, June 4, 2010

Madness Under the Royal Palms: Love and Death Behind the Gates of Palm Beach Madness Under the Royal Palms: Love and Death Behind the Gates of Palm Beach by Laurence Leamer

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Pretentious look at the rich and perhaps not so famous demonstrating that they are just as vain, vapid and self promoting as the rest of humanity. One has to wonder why anyone would care about these people, except that they have money.

View all my reviews >>

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Thoughts on Malcolm Galdwell's Essays

What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures by Malcolm Gladwell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
No wonder Gladwell's books don't drop from the best seller lists, his essays are wonderful reading. No matter what the subject, he is smart and challenging. One of his favorite tactics is to knock two or three different exsamples together to make a point: pit bulls, mafioso, and terrorists to make a point about stereotyping and profiling; reading aerial photographs and reading mamograms to show the difficulty of interpreting different kinds of information even though we often regard the results of those interpretations as definitive.

View all my reviews >>

Some Baseball Memories - Blogcritics Sports

Some Baseball Memories - Blogcritics Sports

This article was first published at Blogcritics

DVD Review: The Pacific

Article first published as DVD Review: The Pacific on Blogcritics.

HBO's Emmy Award winning miniseries, The Pacific, will be released in a smartly boxed six DVD set on November 2. Beginning in December of 1941 and going through the end of the war in 1945, the series looks at the struggles in the Pacific theater through the dramatization of the real life experiences of three representative Marines and their comrades. It is not simply the story of the battles, although there is some of the most realistic depiction of the horrors of those famous battles—Guadalcanal, Cape Gloucester, Peleliu, Iwo Jima, Okinawa; it is also the story of the effects of these brutal struggles on the men who fought them.

The three central figures are Medal of Honor winner John Bosilone played by Jon Seda, Eugene Sledge (Joe Mazzello), and Robert Leckie (James Badge Dale). The journeys of these three men provide a convenient point of departure and an excellent source of first person information, since both Sledge and Leckie wrote about their wartime experiences after the war: Leckie in the 1957, Helmet for My Pillow and Sledge in With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa. Bosilone, on the other hand, after his heroic actions on Guadalcanal, was ordered back to the United States to take part in the war bond drive and became a well known celebrity whose life was well documented. The series shows the high almost naïve expectations of the men as they leave for the war zone, their reactions to the horrifying deaths and mutilations of their comrades and the fanaticism of the enemy, and the difficult adjustment to ordinary life after they return home.

The Pacific is not a glamorous romanticized picture of war. There is heroism certainly, but it is the heroism of conquering fear and charging up a beach into the face of machine gun barrages, it is the heroism of trudging through mud in the heat of tropics with little or no water or time to rest, it is the heroism of doing what needs to be done to kill the enemy and to stay alive. It is impossible to watch this series without tearing up at what these men went through. War is hell may have become something of a cliché; every once in awhile we need to be reminded that what may be a cliché for those of us who never had to experience that horror, may well be a truth for those who do. With our armed forces fighting even now, it is a reminder that is clearly of the moment.

Nor does the series shy away from some of the philosophical questions raised by war. There is for example a discussion in the fifth episode between the newly arrived Sledge and the more veteran Leckie on the question of evil in a world created by a just God. The question of ends justifying means is raised when one of their own soldiers loses it and begins screaming in the middle of the night and needs to be silenced before he gives away their position. There is the problem of how to deal with an enemy who will try and kill you even as you try to deal with his wounds. There is even some implied explanation and justification of the use of the Atom Bomb to end the war.

War brutalizes everyone involved in it, and the series doesn't sugar coat the brutal behaviors of either side. We are shown how the Japanese used civilians as shields on Okinawa, how, for example they turned one woman and her baby into a human bomb. But we are also shown marines digging gold teeth out of the mouths of dead Japanese soldiers. We see them taking pot shots at one of the enemy soldiers who seems to be surrendering. While these things are not quite morally equivalent, they do suggest that there is inhumane behavior on both sides.

Still when all is said and done The Pacific is most importantly a testament to the self-effacing courage of the marines that fought and died for their country. One of the extras included on the DVD is a set of profiles of some of the men featured in the film. Friends and relatives talk about them. Those that were still living talk about themselves and the others. They explain what it was like to be there and how it felt to come home. To a man they declined to call themselves heroes; to a man they question how it was that of all the men who went, why is it they that were the ones that made it out alive. To a man they talk about the nightmares that still haunt them after fifty years. It is to the series' credit that their service and the sacrifice of those who didn't make it home are never trivialized; they are presented with honesty and integrity.

Other bonus materials included with the set are a feature on the making of the series, a special section on what they call the "Anatomy of the Pacific War," and short historical narratives that can be played before each of the ten episodes. The first shows the care the production team took to create an accurate picture of what it was like on those islands, whether it was in creating a beach that looked like the real thing or trying to emulate the torrential rains. Actors were put through a boot camp to give them an insight into what the men they were playing actually went through. The "Anatomy" talks about the Japanese soldier and the Japanese attitude toward surrender. It focuses on the cultural attitudes fostered both in the East and the West that may well have been responsible for the brutality of the war. It tries to provide a larger perspective through which to view the events. The historical introductions are narrated by Tom Hanks and include clips from interviews with some of the veterans.