Tag Archives: history

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!

 

 

“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.

Kitty Foyle

Kitty Foyle is one of my favourite schlocky movies from days of yore: it’s sort of an early rom-com, though short on comedy, more of a romance novel (and it actually was a novel) turned vehicle for Ginger Rogers (who was terrific in the role). One has to take it, though, as being “of its time,” so to speak. There is, for example, one particularly cringe-worthy moment where Kitty says that she is “free, white and 21.” Oy.

I watched it recently on Turner Classic, and I realized that for me, it represents  a connection to both of my parents. My dad told me once that in his youth, he had a big crush on Ginger Rogers, though he got over it when he discovered that she was, in his words, “a fascist.” Now, I did some reading on Rogers, and she was not a fascist. She was a Republican and not a fan of the New Deal or FDR. That said, when the war started, she abandoned the Republican isolationism of the era and became a full-on supporter of the war effort – she owned a ranch that donated milk to soldiers and she performed in numerous USO tours.

It connects to my mom, at least in my mind, because of her love of the word “pill” to describe a certain type of man. What type of man? Well, just watch Kitty Foyle and you’ll see that she is torn between two pills. In the end — spoiler alert — she chooses the pill who wants to marry her, rather than the pill who just wants her as a mistress. It’s a smart choice, I suppose, though one senses Kitty preferred the latter pill.

Here is the original trailer of the movie, in which you can see both pills, and Ginger rocking the role of a white-collar gal. (By the way, I like to think of myself as a “sassy mick,” just like Kitty!)

Pessimism

As previously mentioned here, I have started a tumblr of my uncle’s letters from World War II. I was thinking about the post I just put up, the beautiful quote from one of his letters, the absolute moral clarity and it occurred to me that in the current generation of my family there is someone who said, a few years back, that every day he woke up and hoped that more American soldiers had died in Iraq.

I hadn’t thought about those awful, stupid words in a while, thankfully. But today they came to me, in stark contrast to my uncle’s wonderful words.

My late brother, Alan, was appalled by the comment in question, as was I, but more to the point, he was shocked. I really wasn’t shocked, because I had a clearer view of the person who said it. (Alan had a certain naivete.) But it made me deeply depressed, nonetheless.

One lives in hope, as I always say, but one can contemplate “devolution” and become quite pessimistic…

The ‘But’ Brigade

I thought I’d plug a couple of pieces I have on Huffington Post. I thought this first one, about Charlie Hebdo, was pretty good, until I read Howard Jacobson’s piece saying the same thing a billion times better. This second one is about some nasty folks in Iran who think they are very clever.

I continue to be amazed by the specious comparisons and attempts at mitigation people make when these events occur, and lest you think I am exaggerating, I’d like to draw attention to part of a comment I saw on Facebook, which effectively compared the Charlie Hebdo cartoons of Muhammed with the sort of cartoons that appeared in  Der Sturmer under the Third Reich. (I will not correct the grammatical/spelling errors in the comment.)

SOme forms of sarcastic critique (nazi cartoons about Jews in the Prewar Germany) to me are counterproductive to the circumstance they portray. I dont want to ban them but I wont hold them out as symbols of freedom either.

Wow. Just…words fail. There was more to this comment, believe it or not, but I think you can get where it was going and this part made me sick enough. Very big of the commenter to say they would not hold up Julius Streicher-type anti-Jewish vitriol as a symbol of freedom. Especially as they weren’t, unlike the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. Let’s compare, shall we?

The anti-Jewish caricatures of which the commenter was writing, were drawn under a dictatorship as part of state-sponsored persecution of Jews. There was no freedom for anyone to draw any counter-cartoons, so to speak. And they made no political point other than “Jews are bad and we want make you all hate them even more than you already do.” They were also not caricatures of a god or religious figure. They were caricatures of Jews, Germans citizens who had been contributing members of society and posed absolutely no threat. The cartoons at Charlie Hebdo were almost all caricatures of a religious figure — Muhammed. Occasionally there were caricatures of terrorists, Islamists living in France or elsewhere. They were drawn as a response to threats on freedom in a free society and they were drawn — here is the key — with no state support whatsoever. The government of France neither opposed nor supported nor insisted upon such caricatures (as did the government of Germany in the 1930s). Other journalists and artists were free to draw counter-cartoons challenging Charlie Hebdo’s choices.

That the person who made the silly (and rather scary) comment is ignorant of history should not come as a surprise. I remember another time, this person asserted to me that Zionism “was started after World War II by Theodor Herzl.” Um, no. Herzl died very early on in the 20th century, I think around 1904. Zionism began, officially I suppose you could say, in the 19th century, though really, there have always been Jews in what we now call Israel. The movement goes way back.

So click on the links above, if you wish, but especially the Howard Jacobson piece. It’s a good intellectual antidote to some of the profound foolishness out there.