Friday, April 30, 2010

Mini Review

Empress of the Splendid Season: A Novel Empress of the Splendid Season: A Novel by Oscar Hijuelos

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The story of an ordinary pericson with great dreams dealing with the realities of everyday existence, told through the life of a Cuban cleaning lady working in New York. Could be compared with "Death of a Salesman," as an example of the paying attention that Linda Loman calls for at the end of the play, although in this case the dreamer doesn't fail completely. Lydia Espana is not defeated by life.

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Thursday, April 29, 2010

Book Review: Koestler by Michael Scammell

This article was first published at Blogcritics

While back in the middle of the last century, Arthur Koestler was considered one of the leading literary lights of the period—a journalist and novelist, an intellectual whose work not only captured the current zeitgeist but might well be the recognized voice of the era for ages to come, today it would seem that light has somewhat dimmed. Koestler's work, other than Darkness at Noon, the novel that made him famous, is little read and gathers, as the author himself was wont to forecast, dust. Michael Scammell's new biography, Koestler: The literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic, will do much to rehabilitate the man and his work for this new century's readers.

Koestler's problem is that he doesn't fit nicely into any of the standard literary or political niches. Early on, he embraced a kind of utopian Communism which he found embodied in Russia, only to reject it as totalitarian dictatorship as a result of Stalin's pact with Hitler during WWII and the show trials of party members in various iron curtain countries after the war. He was unable to join with other European intellectuals, like Sartre, in supporting Russian actions as necessary means to a greater end, and turned with some reservation to American democracy instead. Indeed Darkness at Noon is his impassioned attack on the degeneration of the Communist ideal under Stalin. Still even here, he was uncomfortable with the right wing passions of the McCarthyites as indeed they were with him. He found himself in the middle of two extreme political points of view, neither of which he could accept, nor they him.

As a young man he supported Zionism, even managing a permit to travel to Palestine to join a kibbutz, only once there to discover that pioneer life was a bit rough for him. Moreover, here too he was caught between two conflicting ideologies—those who looked for political solutions to get the British to stand behind the Balfour Declaration and those revisionist who espoused terrorist action as the only way to pressure the Brits. Unlike his attitude to Soviet expediency Koestler saw in the revisionist ideas and actions a legitimate example of ends justifying means. His novel, Thieves in the Night uses his experiences in Palestine to develop his political position, and again put him in the position of alienating not only the conventional Zionists, but the British as well. Later in life his ideas about race and assimilation placed him outside the mainstream of Israel and its supporters.
There is even a question about where to place him as a literary figure. He was born in Hungary, but when he wrote, it was in German and then in English. He became a British citizen, but he lived much of the time in France and the United States. He began as a journalist, and continued writing for periodicals throughout his career. His greatest work was in the novel, and though he wrote several more works of fiction, he never managed another as good. It was not until he turned to autobiography, according to Scammell, that he once again produced work of similar quality. Finally in the last stage of his life he turned to writing about science and then to the paranormal. There are so many variants to his life and work that it becomes difficult to find a cubby hole in which to place him.

Scammell paints a picture of the man that is not always very flattering. Fond of intellectual debate, Koestler was often contentious and overbearing in argument, sometimes resorting to violent behavior in the heat of the moment. His belligerence is traced at times to feelings of inadequacy because of his short stature, at times to embarrassment about his heavy accent, at times to his ego, plain and simple. He drank too much. His womanizing was legendary; he liked to keep score of his conquests in his diary. He felt that an element of force added spice to love making, and he wasn't beyond physical abuse. There was even an accusation of rape by one of his lady friends (an accusation Scammell denies). In a time before the feminist revolution, he treated his women like servants.

Nonetheless, he was a familiar of many of the most important figures of the twentieth century, and Scammell offers nice little character touches of many of them. Simone de Beauvoir complains about Koestler's poor performance after insisting on getting her in bed. Camus makes a pass at Koestler's wife to be while dancing at a night club and writes romantic letters to her signing himself, Tinkie. Whittaker Chambers spends half a day working on his farm, half a day working on his writing. Bertrand Russell reacts to his wife's accusation that she was raped. Edmund Wilson proposes to Koestler's lover, Mamaine. Erwin Schrodinger is afraid of wasps and Koestler makes him a gift of a fly swatter to defend himself. Walter Benjamin shares the morphine he is hoarding to commit suicide with Koestler in case he is caught by the Fascists.

Koestler is a book that captures the man, his significance to his own time and his importance for ours. It is well documented and eminently readable. It’s the kind of biography that will have you at the local library looking for a copy of Darkness at Noon or either of Koestler's two autobiographical works, Arrow in the Blue and The Invisible Writing, the books that most recognize as the author at his best.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Plum Biscuit

Link to an early Mandelbaum story: "Mandlebaum Descending."

Plum Biscuit

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Pirates Lose Three 36-1

Outscored 36-1 in the recently concluded series with Milwaukee, the Pirates are obviously deeply committed to this season's lose large strategy. Thursday's game, the worst loss in the franchise's storied history—a twenty run shut out—may well be just the beginning. Think of the possibilities when the Pirates play the Phillies or the Cardinals. A twenty run deficit may look like a squeaker.
        When they are bad, they are very, very bad.

When they are good—when were they good?

Now having perfected the lose large part of the formula for success, it would seem to be time to get to work on the second part of the formula: win the close ones. Of course it is difficult to win any ones, close or otherwise, if you only score one run in three games. Roberto Clemente must be turning over in his grave.

All franchises have their ups and downs. Look at how long it took the Red Sox to get out from under the curse of the Babe. Look at the Cubs getting 'Bartmaned' out of a shot at the World Series in more than fifty years. It's not like the Pirates haven’t had their share of winning. There were World Series victories in 1979, 1971, and 1960, and a couple in the dim, dark days beyond recall. Second baseman, Bill Mazeroski, is still revered around the three rivers. The trouble is that since 1992, the Pirates seem to have been suffering from a curse of their own, the curse of Francisco Cabrera. The trouble is that the ups all seem to be things of the past, and the future looks to be just one down after another.

Still Pittsburgh fans it turns out aren't greedy. Truth be told, local Pittsburgh fans would be happy, never mind happy, they would be ecstatic with a 500 season. Happy! They'd be happy if the team lost fewer than ninety games. It has come to the point where baseball fans in Pittsburgh would be satisfied with mediocrity, forget greatness. The first few series of the season gave some hope. This last debacle with Milwaukee, albeit a team that always seems to give the Pirates trouble, hasn't managed to crush that hope for many. According to an article in the Post Gazette, Pirate fans leaving Thursday's disaster were still smiling. More power to them.

As for me, down the road from my home in Western Pennsylvania there is a complex with five baseball fields. The Penn State Uniontown Campus plays its home games there. Soon the Little League will be playing there. In the summer, there will be Legion baseball. It may not be the major leagues, but more often than not it's competitive. And if it's a blowout, it only cost a buck or two for a donation, when the bench players come around with a can in the middle innings. You can get a hot dog, fries and a coke for under five bucks. Parking is free. The kids in the field may not be major leaguers; they may not even be future major leaguers, but they play hard and they put up a good fight.

Afternoons this spring and summer, you'll find me there.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Music DVD Review: The World According to John Coltrane

As with the other documentaries in the Master of American Music series, the best thing about the newly remastered DVD of The World According to John Coltrane is the large helping of music from this modern jazz monument. Long noted, sometimes disparaged, often praised for his lengthy solo explorations, the high points of this DVD are all in these characteristic solo performances with his quartet mates, McCoy Tyner on the piano, Elvin Jones on the drums, and Jimmy Garrison on the bass.

There are classic performances of the early innovative "Giant Steps" and the elegiac "Reverend King Alabama." Perhaps his most popular work was his recording of "My Favorite Things" on which he plays the soprano saxophone. The documentary uses a filmed studio version of the piece, interrupts for some commentary, and then morphs into an outdoor concert version which ends with a standing ovation. There is also some of the early work with Miles Davis illustrated by both artists soloing on "So What."

Some attention is paid to his life: born in Hamlet, North Carolina in 1926, his father died in 1938, leaving him to be raised by his mother who was instrumental in his religious training. He enlisted in the navy in 1946 and played with the Navy band. He did some early work with rock and roll bands, like that of Earl Bostic, to support himself while he also played with the more innovative bebop groups like Dizzy Gillespie. But the major portion of the documentary, like the others in the series, is devoted to the music.

Commentary is provided by musicians like Wayne Shorter, Jimmy Heath, Tommy Flanagan, and Rashied Ali. Heath describes how he listened to Stravinsky and other classical composers. Shorter talks about how he tried to use his saxophone to do the kinds of things other instruments were doing. They talk about his interest in the music of India and Africa and its influence in his own music. Composer La Monte Young, very often thought of as the originator of minimalism, points out minimalist tendencies in Trane's work.

Perhaps the most significant commentary is from his wife Alice who played piano in the later version of his quartet and then quintet with the controversial Eric Dolphy in what is usually considered his avant garde period. She notes the spiritual nature of his music derived from his early religious training and then his study of Eastern music. He saw music not as an end in itself, but "as a means to enlightenment," "a probing of soul and spirit with his audience as active participants." "Musical structures," he felt, "map specific states of consciousness." Music, it seems, was to be a source of mystical awareness. The passionate collisions of harmonies that some critics found nihilistic dissonances had their best analogies in the rhapsodic states of many worshippers in the churches of his youth. They are best compared to a phenomenon like speaking in tongues.

Alice Coltrane goes on to explain that Trane's greatest wish was to play with some of the great spiritsual musicians of the world, a wish he died before realizing. The documentary ends with saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell of the Art Ensemble of Chicago fulfilling Trane's dream playing with dervish musicians in the Sahara Desert in Morocco.

The documentary written by Robert Palmer and narrated by Ed Wheeler was winner of Japan's Swing Journal's 1991 award for Best Music Program of the Year and MIDEM's (Marché International du Disque et de l'Edition Musicale)1992 award for best musical special. It 's running time is just short of an hour.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Right Attitude to Rain (Isabel Dalhousie Series #3) Right Attitude to Rain by Alexander McCall Smith

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Although shelved under mysteries, this third in the series really doesn't deal with any mystery. More pondering over philosophical issues in everyday life than usual, as Isabel seems to be able to find ethical questions in almost every aspect of her daily life: whether she should take advantage of a seller's mistaken assumption about her relationship with Jamie to get a better price on an apartment to whether she should try to recommend a young woman she has just met for a job--to say nothing of even more personal questions.

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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Book Review: The Dead Republic, by Roddy Doyle

The Dead Republic is the final novel n Roddy Doyle's trilogy about the life of Irish revolutionary Henry Smart which began with A Star Called Henry and Oh, Play That Thing. Born in 1901, Henry begins as a hit man for the IRA until it is determined that he is a liability to the movement and his execution is ordered. He escapes to America where he and his family trek around the country until he becomes separated from them in a train accident which also costs him his leg. This last installment of the trilogy begins in 1946, where Henry turns up collapsed on the desert set of a John Ford film. In something of a parody of the grand entrance he is discovered inadvertently by one of the film's stars, Henry Fonda, who has stepped out behind a rock to relieve himself.

Henry becomes involved with director Ford who wants to shoot a film about the Irish uprising based on Henry's life. Henry agrees, but soon discovers that there is a great divide between movies and life. What Ford is creating is a sentimentalized version of Henry's life; one that Henry finds insulting to everything he remembers. In a story much reminiscent of Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author, Henry learns that there is a significant gap between one's reality and the artistic representation of that reality. Presumably, they are collaborating on the film that was to become The Quiet Man, but very soon Henry discovers that there is a difference between life and art.

Like the characters in Pirandello's play, Henry keeps complaining about the liberties that Ford wants to take with his life. Like the Stage Manager in Six Characters in Search of an Author, Ford keeps trying to explain the need to telescope the events of a life time into two hours of screen time. Henry complains: "He knew what I was doing. I was reclaiming my life. I knew what he was doing. He was making me up. There were two stories being dragged out of me." And Ford's story was nothing but a sentimentalized idyll. The grim grit of the revolution was out, and the beauty of the red headed colleen, as played by Maureen O'Hara was in.

Henry goes along with it for awhile, but when they finally go back to Ireland to begin shooting and he gets a look at the final script, he runs off in search of the truth of his past. This leads to a happy period of anonymity, equivalent to a kind of tending to one's garden, as he becomes caretaker in a boys' school near Dublin and romances a woman who may or may not have been his lost wife. The dreamland lasts until he is caught in a terrorist bomb blast, recognized as a icon of the revolution and taken up by the IRA as a heroic connection to their roots—a connection to be exploited for their current purposes.

Like John Ford, the leaders of the IRA want to create a Henry for their own purposes. Neither is concerned with the reality. They are all concerned with creating a reality that will have the desired effect—be it aesthetic or political. For the IRA, Henry becomes a tool for their propaganda. As one of their leaders tells Henry, the war for independence is about "the ownership of the definition of Irishness." "The copyright," he goes on. "The brand. Who owns Irishness, hey?" Henry Smart, the real Henry Smart, is unimportant. The Henry Smart that they create, that Henry Smart, is significant, and that Henry Smart is to become a kind of saint of the revolution.

In Roddy Doyle, Ireland has once again produced a truly gifted story teller. He weaves in and out, back and forth through a half century of a man's life with finesse. He has created in Henry Smart, a character who embodies a "brand" of Irishman quite different from the stereotypical version created by Ford, embodied in character actors like Barry Fitzgerald. He has created a complex round character who is both idealistic when he can afford to be idealistic, and practical when necessary. He has created a character that is not perfect, a character who like most of is flawed, and not always strong enough to do what we know we should. Still, when push comes to shove, Henry will do what little he can.

While the story line of The Dead Republic is clear enough for those who haven't read the first two books, it would probably be a good idea for readers to start at the beginning. Besides, Henry Smart is a character worth knowing about from the start.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Mini Review

Execution Dock: A Novel (William Monk, #16) Execution Dock: A Novel by Anne Perry

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
In this latest in Perry's second Victorian mystery series,
Monk and Hester have to go after child pornographer, Jericho Phillips again after their attorney friend gets him freed from a murder charge on the grounds that he was not proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt--raises questions about law and justice.

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Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Mini Review

Persuader (Jack Reacher Series, #7) Persuader by Lee Child

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Child's Jack Reacher is the ultimate loner. You can hear the townspeople saying who was that masked man, as he rides off into the sunset. Still, even he had Tonto. Reacher wouldn't want him, and rightly so, more often than not, it was Tonto that got the Lone Ranger in trouble. This time out, Reacher deals with gun runners and looks to avenge an old wound from his M. P. days.

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Sunday, April 4, 2010

Music DVD Review: Sarah Vaughan: The Divine One

Four newly remastered DVD's in the Masters of American Music series originally televised in the 1980's and 1990's are now available from Naxos. They include hour length documentaries on Count Basie, John Coltrane, Sarah Vaughan, and the Blues, and follow a prior set of DVD's on Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, and Thelonius Monk.

Sarah Vaughan: The Divine One opens with a 1978 concert performance of "A Foggy Day in London Town" and some general commentary on the nature of her artistry by fellow musicians. Then it moves back in time to fill in some of the details of the singer's early life focusing on her beginnings singing in Newark's Mount Zion Baptist Church as described by her mother. At age fifteen, Sarah entered a talent contest at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, and was an artistic and popular success, although she only managed to win ten dollars in prize money after three days of performing. Nevertheless, this contest where she came to the attention of popular jazz song stylist, Billy Eckstine, was the springboard that launched her career. She joined with the Earl 'Fatha' Hines band and later moved to Eckstine's newly formed band: a band that included such giants of Bebop as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Art Blakey.

Using concert footage, photographs and interviews, the DVD gives a comprehensive portrait of the singer's career as well as some valuable critical evaluation of her vocal art. It is somewhat more reticent about her personal life, although there are one or two revelatory anecdotes. Singer, Joe Williams tells about how she once took the wheel of the tour bus they were riding on. Pianist, George Gaffney talks about how she had no problems eating large meals before a performance, unlike many singers. There is some discussion of her passion for foul language, and even a sequence from and interview she did with Dick Cavett, in which he asks for a sample. On the other hand, her daughter Paris, emphasizes her mother's preference for keeping her personal life private, and continues to honor that preference in her interviews.

Interviews with fellow musicians tend to be much more illuminating. Drummer, Roy Haynes tries model a sample of the way Vaughan manages to "bend" notes. Joe Williams talks about how she and her trio worked without music, able to follow each other's improvisations as if by telepathy. They were tuned into each other musically; a judgment Haynes seconds. But it is not only about the music they are illuminating, the true feelings they had for the woman as a person come out clearly, as when an emotionally wrought Billy Eckstine describes why he was unable to go see her during the last year when she was dying of cancer.

Still the glory of this DVD is in the performances. Too often musical documentaries settle for little snippets of an artist's work. NPR's Jazz Profiles, for example, while always informative biographically, tended to skimp on the music. This is not the case with the Masters of American Music series. There is a broad selection of complete and almost complete performances illustrating the range and variety of her talent. There is the soulful balladeer singing "Once in Awhile" and "The Shadow of Your Smile." There is a swinging version of "Day In, Day Out." She sings with a trio. She sings with a big band. She sweats through song after song in the heat at Wolf Trap with a symphony orchestra. She plays the piano and sings with a lone bass. She revels in an intensely dramatic rendition of "Send in the Clowns." For the performances alone, this is a DVD worth the price.

Sarah Vaughan is one of the great singers, not only of her generation, but of all generations. Here is an opportunity, not only to hear her, but to see her as well. It is an opportunity not to be missed.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Hamlet with dogs: a bit too long, and probably could do without the chapters from the dog's point of view.

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DVD Review: Mi Verano Con Amanda

Four young misfits out for a summer vacation's fun and games survive a series of mishaps and wind up happily fulfilled at least for awhile, if not necessarily ever after. One or the other of them has to deal with problems growing pot, a catatonic fear of bugs, and failure to perform sexually, and this collection of problems as well as a Job's list of others is what passes for a plot in the 2008 Spanish language comedy, Mi Verano Con Amanda (My Summer With Amanda), now available on DVD with English subtitles.

Joel "El Rockero Loco" Contreras, the central character is a shy, wannabe film director who is in love with a beautiful actress model whom he has never met. Too timid to approach her, he nevertheless remains true to his love and refuses to chase after other women. While Contreras does manage a nice innocence on screen, he is not above mugging for the camera. And since the script puts him and his friends in one silly situation after another, he and the rest of the cast have plenty of opportunity.

The other three members of the crew are stereotypes out of any number of "young guys out for a good time" movies. Francis Rosas plays Fabio a drug addled faux philosopher. Erik Rodriguez is Chicho, the fat slob character made famous by John Belushi. Eugene Rodriguez is RS, the rich guy who knows all the angles, can get the girl, but can't quite manage to seal the deal.

Tania Rodriguez is fetching as Amanda, the conniving object of his affections, a girl only interested in men with money or position. She gets to wear a lot of sexy outfits, but really has little to do other than appear bitchy and look angelic, which is pretty much par for the course in this kind of escape farce.
Writer director Benjamin Lopez manages to put together a film that is heavy on titillating suggestive erotica and indulgent depictions of bodily functions and light on effective plot development and character nuance. The film is unrated. Although there is no outright nudity, there are enough discussions of sexual activity and simulations of some of that activity to keep the teen crowd out of the theaters. And this is a shame, since this is the crowd that could be the most likely audience for the film. There is nothing like gas and excrement to impress a growing boy.

Filmed in Puerto Rico, Lopez does include some beautiful scenery to complement the women in bikinis, but it is always the bikinis that get the lion's share of attention. Quite obviously Lopez knows his target audience.

Some of the extras on the DVD include bloopers and interviews with the director and the stars. Unfortunately these are all in Spanish, and there are no subtitles. I should also add that the subtitles for the film itself could use some editing. There are a lot of spelling errors, usage problems and missing words. Subtitles are a necessary evil. At their best they distract the viewer from the visual action, at their worst they destroy any verisimilitude, by calling attention to themselves. Subtitles need to be unobtrusive. Silly errors call attention to themselves and away from the film.