Book Recommendations

I don’t usually do book recommendations on my site but today I will. I read insane amounts — mostly non-fiction but some fiction — and the fact that I am taking time to write about these two books tells you what they meant to me.

The books are Bettyville, by George Hodgman, and The Hare with Amber Eyes, by Edmund de Waal. In a way, they are similar: both stories about family, about the past, about loss and love and about being grateful in the present. But they are different, of course.

The Hare with Amber Eyes is drawn against the painful backdrop of the relentless (and seemingly endless) persecution of Jews in Europe, the sickness of the Holocaust, and also has a strong art history focus (something I really appreciated).

De Waal is English, but a descendant of the (originally Russian) Ephrussi family, for a time on a par with the Rothschilds (even related by marriage to them) in terms of wealth and influence in parts of Europe. Proust’s Swann is said to have been based on Charles Ephrussi.

When de Waal inherits some “netsuke” from a favorite relative (he represents the fifth generation of his family to inherit them), he decides to trace their journey, which includes stops in Paris and Japan and Vienna. And it is truly something, particularly when you discover how the netsuke escaped being stolen by the Nazis, while pretty much all the rest of the Ephrussi art was taken.

In some ways, the book reminded me of the brilliant movie, “Woman in Gold”, though the former unfolds over a much longer period of time.

Bettyville is, on the surface, a memoir with less grandeur, but Hodgman’s portrait of his mother, Betty, is mighty grand. My own mom died, just short of her 93rd birthday, last year, and I saw so much of her in Betty. Same generation, same decency, work ethic, wit, and a similar stubborn dance with declining independence. The same good, strong people.

Hodgman is a successful editor and writer who, after growing up in Missouri in the ’60s and ’70s as a clever — though struggling and often bullied — gay kid, moved to New York. Along with an enviable career, he got into drugs, went into rehab, had some dysfunctional relationships, all of which he writes about with tremendous humor and no self-pity.

When his mother began fading, he moved back, initially to find someone else to care for her, but then decided to see her home, as he says, himself. In the process he finds “home”, in a manner. It is certainly touching to see him discover Missouri — fly-over country — as an adult, after having felt out of place so often as a kid and teenager. Honestly, I laughed, I laughed so hard I cried, and I just plain cried.

Read them both!

 

 

Ash-Scattering

As regular readers know, my mother died last year. Most of her ashes were scattered in 2014, but for various reasons there were some left to scatter still.  So last week that deed was done, and it turned into quite a lovely nature walk.

First, we met a super polite groundhog who held up his little paw when he coughed/burped.

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Then we saw this lovely guy…

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…who apparently had something to say.

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And that something was “Kiss my backside, humans.”

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And then we met a skittish bunny.

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But he wasn’t so skittish that he couldn’t also manage a loud and clear message, similar to the duck’s.

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Mum would most definitely approve.

Museo Archeologico Nazionale dell’Umbria

These pics are from when I was in Italy, in April. I went to the Archeological Museum of Umbria, which is full of fascinating history and seemingly endless artifacts — Byzantine earrings and Roman tableware and even the remains of Etruscan aristocrats (in ash form). It was Easter Sunday so entry was free and I spent about four hours there. I didn’t take pics of the exhibits, though I think it was allowed, provided you used no flash. I just wanted to enjoy looking and not worry about capturing. That said, once I left, I — being me — found a cat to photograph, the “official” cat of the museum, it was explained to me. The very kind folks at the ticket booth gave kitty a home, food, veterinary care, and love. (I think she had recently had her spay, hence her shaved belly.)

Official Greeter.

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And here is a hideous view from one of the museum’s upper-floor windows.

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Umbria — so ugly!

Greatest Column Ever Written

Very important. From last year but truly timeless.

Everyone is just totally winging it, all the time. 

I’ve often thought of my experience of adulthood thus far as one of incrementally discovering that there’s no institution, or walk of life, in which everybody isn’t just winging it. Growing up, I assumed that the newspaper on the breakfast table must be assembled by people who truly knew what they were doing; then I got a job at a newspaper. Unconsciously, I transferred my assumptions of competence to (among others) people who worked in government. Then I got to know a few people who did – and who’d admit, after a pint or two, that their jobs involved staggering from crisis to crisis, concocting credible-sounding policies in cars en route to press conferences, exactly as portrayed in The Thick of It.

By the way, the author of this column wrote this very helpful book — I read it shortly after my brother died and it did indeed allow me to do just as its title suggests.

Lions

I could rant forever about animals and how we treat them, but I just want to say a few words about the “but brigade” where the cruel slaughter of Cecil the Lion is concerned. The “but brigade” are the people who say, “But what about Syria? You care more about a lion than ISIS? et cetera.

Guess what? I can be upset and outraged about two things at once! More than two things, even. It is not en either/or. We’re all in this together, animals and the human animal. And isn’t empathy for others, including other species, the sign of an evolved society? Isn’t an understanding that murder for sport (and cruelty for sport, when you think of how Cecil suffered for 40 hours) is despicable, the sign of an evolved society?

I’m also quite dubious about the argument that trophy hunters pump so much money into the economies of these poor countries and they actually help conservation. Maybe if the money wasn’t being pilfered by the nightmarish political and tribal leaders in so many African countries, and maybe if they actually produced and sold stuff, then they wouldn’t need to rely on sickos who pay exorbitant sums to murder animals to feed their economy. Admitting that they “need” creeps like the Minnesota dentist and others to engage in barbarism for them seems an admission of failure on their part.

Finally, I am tired of people saying “what about all the other animals killed? Don’t you care about them?” Uh, yes, I do. But I am glad this one is getting some attention from people who usually wouldn’t give a hoot. But of course, humans being as sucky as they are, the first time the world comes together to support an animal, people have to find ways to try and take that support away. This is a chance to have a meaningful conversation — trite as it might sound — about trophy-hunting and cynics have to try and ruin it by saying, “But don’t you care about ISIS?” Sheesh! Of course I do.

To me, it’s about moral values. If you believe they are absolute, which I do, then hunting is repugnant. There is a philosophical basis for according animals the same rights as people, and we should all hope it becomes the norm.

A note about vigilantism: I am disgusted by it. As much as I hate what Walter Palmer did, I’d like to see him dealt with through the law and the free market. And it bothers me that people are threatening physical violence on him. I hope it’s just a lot of puffery because truly, that would not only be wrong, it would not be helpful to the cause of animals.

Now, some links for you: regarding this nonsense asserted about how people who pay to trophy-hunt are actually helping animals, a good piece from the New Yorker. 

Regarding aid to Africa more generally and how it goes to the wrong places/people, read African economist Dambisa Moyo’s book on the matter.

Regarding the “but brigade” in another circumstance, read my Charlie Hebdo piece from January of this year.

Finally, I’d like to end this post with a great quote from Isaac Bashevis Singer, who, when asked if he thought the life of an animal was worth the same as the life of a human being, said, “I see no evidence to the contrary.”

Amen to that.

 

Winchester Cathedral

I direct you to my latest post at My Uncle’s Letters from the War, wherein my uncle mentions a trip to Winchester and a visit to its cathedral.

Made me think of this song, in which hippies are nostalgic for the days of vaudeville. Rather like when we are nostalgic for hippies, though God knows why we would be. The 1960s, as my late brother used to say, have a lot for which to answer.

But this song is cute.

 

Bastille Day

I have visited France twice in the last year. Those visits came after an absence of 22 years on my part, my last visit having been in 1992, though I had lived, studied and worked in Paris for five years previously (i.e., 1986-1991). I always stayed abreast of French politics, though, and kept my language levels up, and stayed in touch with friends living in Paris and Lyon.

So what was the first thing that struck me in November, 2014, when I got off the plane at Orly? Well, given that I had been in Italy for a couple of months, it struck me that it seemed I had landed in a Protestant country where everyone was whispering and everything was super well-organized. Everything is also relative, of course. And once I adjusted from my “Italian voices/Italian ways” settings, what struck me was how incredibly popular Starbucks had become.

When the first Starbucks opened in France (in Paris) over a decade ago, the doomsayers were out en force, promising an early death. And while Starbucks follows a rocky economic path in Europe, what I saw in Paris indicated that at least with a youthful demographic, it is extremely popular. First of all, most all Starbucks in Paris are often, if not always, bustling…with younger people and yes, some foreigners. For us, there is that sense of familiarity and, of course, the free wifi. Free wifi is more common in France now, but still nothing like in North America.

The crowds (and at certain Starbucks I do mean crowds) of people I saw in Parisian Starbucks were mostly French young people — under 30-year-olds — and in the after-school hours, under 20-year-olds. I think younger French people like feeling cool, like the celebrities they see carrying Starbucks cups on TV and in movies. At some locations the lineups tried one’s patience.

And some locations were right on the much-vaunted Places – the parts of the city where four or five main streets meet and one can find restaurants on almost each corner. When I lived in Paris those spots were always taken by the classic French brasseries with their French awnings, their steak frites and their omelettes or Croque Monsieurs. Now one can get a pricey Starbucks coffee or pastry (as in North America, it ain’t cheap), slightly changed in flavour or name to accommodate the locals.

I may be reading too much into all of this, but I think it is positive and another indication that the French are becoming less parochial. I think it kind of goes hand in hand with something else I noticed both during my last two visits and also from watching a lot of French news in the past decade or so. What I noticed is this: far more integrated French people of Maghrebin background; integrated into jobs where one would not have seen them, say, 25 years ago. For example, news anchors. That might sound silly, but I remember when I came back to Canada in 1991 after five years in France, I found it odd to see so much diversity on news shows. Now one sees that in France.

In fact, when Dominique Strauss-Kahn was arrested in the States a few years ago, I made a point of watching French news and what was interesting to me was how many correspondents had Arab last names. It was a refreshing change. One also sees far more French people of North African/Arab/South Asian origin in politics and law, in academia and so forth. Far from being oppressed (as the apologists for the Charlie Hebdo massacre would have you believe), Muslims in France are at home.

I am not convinced Jews are, unfortunately, but that is for another post.

Oh, and on the matter of Starbucks in France, I just found this article.

Happy Bastille Day, French people!

“Wolf Hall” versus “A Man for all Seasons”

Or Thomas Cromwell versus Thomas More.

After having read — and enjoyed — the Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall books, I became insanely addicted to the Masterpiece Theatre adaptation of the same. It was almost a retro historical drama, like something one would have seen in the 1970s, which I think was very much its strength. A stranger-than-fiction plot, brilliantly staged, written and acted.

It’s a measure of the genius of Mark Rylance, the extraordinary actor (how have I never heard of or seen him before?) who brings self-serving machinator and yet strangely-likable lawyer/fixer/son-of-a-blacksmith Thomas Cromwell to full life, that by the end of the six hours I had a teeny crush on him. What a (not handsome) face! He can convey more with a slight smile/smirk, than one ever cares to know – as good as acting gets. His Cromwell is self-serving, yes, but also sympathetic, intelligent and possessed of some moral boundaries (though he pushes at those a bit).

And it’s a measure of Claire Foy’s talent that, after watching her turn as the mean-spirited Anne Boleyn for six weeks, your heart aches for her as she quiveringly prepares to be parted from her head.

And Damian Lewis as Henry VIII? He comes very close to usurping my previous favorite screen Henry VIII, Robert Shaw. I say “close” because his Henry is far more cruel than Shaw’s interpretation, so it’s hard to feel affection for him (as I did for Shaw’s Henry). Of course, the script played a part in that.

Which brings us to A Man for all Seasons. I have always loved this movie. But it’s interesting because in Wolf Hall, Thomas More is a preening, morally superior hypocrite, a man who tortures “heretics” (apparently enjoying it) and acts all snooty toward the Cromwells of the world, the sons of blacksmiths. It is hard to believe that the More of Wolf Hall believes that the devil deserves benefit of law, though at the end, when he is beheaded, one admires (as in A Man for all Seasons) his powerful faith and his unwillingness to deny it in order to save his earthly life.

And where Wolf Hall makes you care about Cromwell, the Leo McKern Cromwell of A Man for all Seasons is not someone for whom you develop any feeling. The character is not given the depth he is in Wolf Hall, which focusses on Cromwell’s private life (including much loss) and makes his ability to survive (up to a point) at a merciless royal court the centre of the tale.

So what can we learn from this?

That we should learn history from books, many books, and just enjoy movies and TV for what they are — movies and TV (nothing wrong with that, either). Speaking of, off to read this now.