Saturday, November 19, 2011

Book Report: Zug Island: Getting An Education In A Coke Plant

Zug Island: A Detroit Riot NovelZug Island: A Detroit Riot Novel by Gregory A. Fournier

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is a coming-of-age book about an 18-year-old boy who gets kicked out of college his first semester because of a misplaced sense of honor, and who spends the next 10 months working in a coke plant. The book feels autobiographical, and the author apparently spent a summer working in the labor pool in a coke oven plant on Zug Island, just like the narrator of the book.

I really wish I could rate this book higher than average. The story is interesting. It is set in Detroit in 1967, a year in which I was living just up the road in Flint, and where I spent several years in the early 1970s. It always is fun to read about a book where you have some familiarity to the places and events described.

I have reviewed the author's website and he seems like a nice guy. As someone with a master's degree and who has taught "English language arts" for 30 years, part of the time as an adjunct professor at a community college in California, one would expect him to be a very proficient writer. However, some of the writing is clumsy, particularly where there are shifts in time from the scenes being described to the future.

I think the problem with the book is that it is self-published, and therefore did not go through the editing process to which a conventionally published book would have been subjected. The book is subtitled: "A Detroit Riot Novel," which is not really accurate. The Detroit riots are not even mentioned until page 199 of a 230-page book. The riots are really incidental to the main thrust of the story. The narrator's involvement consists of driving through an area affected by the riot and having a friend beaten up by the police. The book would be more accurately subtitled: "An Education In A Coke Plant Novel."

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Philosophy Report: Thomas Hobbes Hits The Nail

I've been reading Leviathian by Thomas Hobbes, the 17th century philosopher. (Don't ask me why -- well, okay, Christopher Hitchens told me I should.) Most of what Hobbes says is nonsense, as I would expect from something written four hundred years ago, but sometimes he says something that leaps from the page and hits me across the forehead. Like this passage on "Belief and Faith" (modernizing the archaic spelling):
"(W)hen we believe any saying whatsoever it be, to be true, from arguments taken, not from the thing itself, or from the principles of natural reason, but from the Authority and good opinion we have of him that said it, then is the speaker, or person we believe in, or trust in, and whose word we take, the object of our faith and the honor done in believing is done to him only. And, consequently, when we believe that the Scriptures are the word of God, having no immediate revelation from God himself, our belief, faith and trust is in the church, whose word we take and acquiesce in. And they that believe that which a prophet relates to them, in the name of God, take the word of the prophet, do honor to him and in him trust and believe, touching the truth of what he relates, whether he be a true or a false prophet. And, so it is also with all other history. For if I should not believe all that is written by historians, of the glorious acts of Alexander or Caesar, I do not think the ghost of Alexander or Caesar had any just cause to be offended, or anybody else, but the historian.

"If Livy say the gods made once a cow to speak,and we believe it not, we distrust not God therein, but Livy. So that it is evidence that whatsoever we believe, upon no other reason, than what is drawn from authority of men only, and their writings; whether they be sent from God or not, is faith in men only."

I'll try to remember that the next time some preacher tries to hit me over the head with his version of what God's will or truth is. In short, my response is, "I believe in God, but I don't believe in you, so shut up."

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Book Report: Is Christopher Hitchens any better than God?

God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons EverythingGod Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Christopher Hitchens is not so hot either. A lot of the invective he uses in the book is unnecessary to make his points. However, logically what he says is indisputable.

Friday, August 26, 2011

A Republican Speaks Out Against the Crazies

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is known for speaking bluntly and forcefully.  A lot of Republicans have been urging him to throw his hat in the race for president.  Wisely, he has not, because he could never be nominated while the party is so dominated by the Tea Party Crazies.  I'm glad he's not running, because I think he could pull enough Democratic and Independent votes to beat Barack Obama.  Here, he defends in the strongest terms possible, his appointment of a Muslim-American as a judge.

Monday, August 01, 2011

40th Anniversary Report: Home Again, Home Again

The 40th Anniversary Tour is over.  We got into Chicago, right on schedule about 5:30 last night.  Another hour to collect our luggage, pick up our car and we were headed home.  We got really tired driving home.  It felt like the 1:00 a.m. or so that it was back in London, and I got so sleepy, I drove through a red light back in Champaign.  But our luck held up, there was no traffic and we are recuperating from jet lag today.

The JACK concert at the Wigmore was a big success (in our unbiased opinion.)  Also in the unbiased opinion of Jack Clements, The Guardian critic who called JACK's Xenakis piece "an epic tour de force."

Saturday, July 30, 2011

40th Anniversary Report: Waiting for the Big Show

It's a beautiful morning in London today.  The temperature is 61, the sun is shining, no rain is predicted for a change and the high should be 70.  Reality hits tomorrow when we return to the sultry Midwest.

We picked up our tickets for the JACK Quartet concert yesterday at Wigmore Hall.  The Hall is gorgeous.  It holds 550; there are 149 tickets left for the concert.  This morning's Guardian has a nice preview here of the concert..  Hopefully, that will sell the other 149 so we can boast of a sell-out performance.

Also, in today's Chamber Musician Today, there's a very interesting (but lengthy) article on the history of the string quartet, starting with Haydn and ending with JACK's performance of an Aaron Cassidy quartet.  What's there not for a proud father to like in an article which starts out like this:
 Steps to the most interesting encounter to ever happen:
1.      - Make herbal resurrection remedy
2.       -Bring Haydn back from the dead
3.       -Buy him a new coat, dust off his wig, introduce him to the idea of cars
4.       -Take him to a JACK Quartet performance
5.       -Have him listen to one of Aaron Cassidy’s string quartets
6.       -Watch what happens
On the agenda today are at least an attempt at following The route set out by Roger Ebert and Daniel Curley in The Perfect London Walk..  I promised the Curley daughters, and also Roger Ebert himself at his most recent Ebertfest that I would check out the walk.  Then dinner at 6:00 at the Wigmore Restaurant and concert at 7:30.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

40th Anniversary Report: If You See This Man Kick Him In The N** (Nose)

This man was hitting on The Wife today!!!  He even kissed her!  I was just relaxing in the apartment this evening, when The Wife decided to go over to the Luxembourg Garden, a few blocks from our house to look at the flowers and try to find a sculpture she heard about today at a museum near us.  When she came back, an hour or so later, she was all smiles.

She had been taking pictures of flowers when he came up and started talking to her.  He could not speak a word of English, and she could speak very little French, but 60 percent of English words are french in origin, just pronounced differently, so there was some communication going on.  He was telling her that she was "tres belle," and wanted her to go for coffee and to get something to eat.  She declined and he pointed to her ring finger (which has been ring-less for many years) and asked her if she was married.  She assured him she was, and she had to get back to her apartment to her husband, but he gallantly insisted on walking her to the gate of the garden, and then gave her the double air kiss on each cheek -- you could say he french kissed her,.  And get this -- she was not angry with him; she told me she was flattered!!  Harumph!  Here I have been refraining from flirting with all the beautiful young french women we have encountered in deference to our 40th anniversary and she is off being air-bussed by an old french coot.

The first thing on the agenda when we get back to the states is to get our wedding rings resized.  I don't want any competition from any old geezers -- particularly when I've become one myself.   Before we leave, I may just go cruise the Luxembourg Garden myself to see who I can find to flirt with.  It would only be fair.

40th Anniversary Report: Would You Like An Argument With That Meal?

So, yesterday, while the Wife and I were wandering around the St. Germain des Pres/ St. Michel area, she happened upon this cute little restaurant on a tiny side street.  It was advertising a prix fixe french meal, consisting of an entree, a main course and dessert at only 18 euros, or $27, which is pretty cheap, considering we have paid $30 for one cup of coffee and an orange juice, on the Champs Elysee.  Plus, if you showed them the brochure, you got a free apertif.

We went  to the restaurant at 7 o'clock, which is a little early to eat by French standards, but not unreasonable, and there was no  one there except the cook, who worked in a small open area just to the left of the tables, a waiter and two women sitting at tables on the sidewalk.  We weren't sure if we were at the  right restaurant for the brochure, but the women and the waiter, standing at the door, assured us we were at the right place and bade us come in.  We had our free apertifs and had put in our orders for our meals (an onion tart, chateaubriand with bearnaise sauce and a creme brulee, for me, and onion soup, boef bourguignon and chocolate mousse for The Wife.)

All was well until we heard some loud shouting in the street.  (Of course, this being Paris, the street side of the cafe was open to the outside.)  We craned our necks and there appeared to be some kind of altercation between one of the women who had been sitting outside our cafe, and a man in a tie and white shirt who appeared connected somehow with one of the restaurants on the other side of the street.  They were really going at it, and at one point, the woman grabbed the man's tie and appeared to be trying to choke him with it.  The waiter rushed out of our restaurant and some people came out of the restaurant across the street and they physically separated the combatants, but the yelling continued unabated.

Finally, the woman came back and sat down at the table outside our cafe, but she continued yelling at the man who kept yelling back, sometimes approaching close to her and then being dragged away by people from the other side.  I expected the gendarmes to come and haul the two enemies to jail for disturbing the peace, but none showed up.  The arguments continued sporadically for another half hour or so, well into and past our entrees.

I asked our waiter what it was all about and he just shook his head and looked disgusted.  At one point, when the yelling had abated somewhat, I asked the woman what the problem was and she said that sometimes men think they hear something, which they didn't hear and it goes right from the ear to the head.  I couldn't understand why our waiter didn't throw the woman out because she was clearly disturbing the customers (still only two) but he didn't.

When the woman and her friend finally left, midway through our entree, I asked the waiter again what the problem was and he said something about sometimes one restaurant thinks the other has too many customers.  That didn't make much sense either since none of the places was exactly full, certainly not ours which had 10 tables and only ours occupied.

I had an idea that maybe the woman owned the restaurant we were in, asked the waiter and he admitted that she was the owner.  Later, a cook from across the street came over and asked to borrow some butter, which the cook in our restaurant quickly gave to him, so I take it any enmity was solely between  the owners and not the staff.

By the time we left the restaurant, at about 8:30, we had been the only customers.  So, I  guess times are hard for restaurateurs in the part of Paris; either that or the yelling proprietors have developed a reputation and driven everyone away except the occasional tourist.

Tonight, our last night in Paris, we're off to the the Pure Cafe, the little cafe featured in that wonderful movie, Before Sunset.  Then tomorrow, it's off to London for a few days.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

40th Anniversary Report: Don't Act Stupidly in Paris

On my Facebook page yesterday, I made the comment that "You WILL be pick pocketed in Paris."  That was overstating the case.  The Wife has been in Paris twice and she has never been  pick pocketed.  And my friend, Ruth, who studied in Paris (with Nadia Boulanger, but who's dropping names?) said she has never been pick pocketed.  Of course Ruth might be a special case because she claims to descend from a line of horse thieves and everyone knows there's honor among thieves.  It's also noteworthy that The Wife and Ruth are women and women are less pick pocket worthy than men because they do not usually carry valuable things in their pockets.  They carry them in their purses and no self-respecting pick pocket is going to stick his hand into a woman's purse and risk coming out with an extra pair of eyelashes or a dried up tube of lipstick.

No, pick pockets are naturally going to pick on someone more dependable about where they stash their valuables, and men are nothing if not dependable about putting their cash in their wallet in their left rear pocket.  (I don't want any flack from women for calling them undependable.  It is a virtue, not a vice, to be an undependable victim for a thief.)

I am paranoid about being pick pocketed because two of my brothers were pick pocketed in Europe, and not having any horse thieves in the family, I figured I could not rely on honor among thieves to escape their fate.  So, the last time I came to Paris, about 10 years ago, I took along a fake wallet.  Actually, a real wallet but with nothing in it.  I would keep my money, passport, etc. elsewhere on my body, the actual location of which I won't disclose in case some Parisian pick pockets are reading my blog.

The last time I was here (and this time, for that matter) I was very careful getting in and out of subways, going up and down stairs (in the city, not in a home, for pete's sake,) being careful to note who was around me, holding back and letting others go first in and out doors, etc.  The plan was perfect.  It still is for that matter.  The problem was, and is in remembering to follow the plan at all times.

The last time I was here, I was on my way to Montmartre, which is well known as a hangout for scam artists and pick pockets, when the announcement came over the subway speakers that there had been some problem in the system and we would all have to get out at the next stop and take a bus the rest of the way.  I got out of the train with everyone else, carefully went up the stairs, stopped to assess the situation, spotted the bus that was to take us the rest of the way, saw that it was crowded and stopped, intending to wait for the next bus.  But a couple of friendly guys at the rear door said, "No, come on, there's room," so like a lamb being led to the slaughter, I got on.  I immediately knew I was going to be pick pocketed.  The guy behind me was leaning into me and I kept my left elbow in his stomach to keep him off.  The guy on the right had a newspaper over his hand, so I figured they were working together.  I kept my right hand tightly around my money in my pocket, and every once in a while broadcast the location of the empty wallet by patting my left rear pocket with my left hand.  Every time I checked the wallet was still there.  Just before the bus stopped, a third person, a young oriental-looking man on my right, shoved a map in front of my face and began asking where we were.  By the time I told him I didn't speak french and didn't know, the bus had stopped, I got off, breathed a sigh of relief, checked my left hip pocket and the flap over the pocket was unbuttoned and my wallet was gone.

Then I got very scared.  I figured if they could get away with taking my wallet, when I knew they were doing it, they could take anything they wanted, including a vital organ without me stopping them.  I was afraid the thieves would be very angry when they realized I had tricked them and would come after me in a dark alley and strip me clean.  I was wearing a distinctive straw hat that would have made it very easy to follow me or to describe me to another confederate, so I took that off and put it in my bag.  I bought another cheap wallet to put in my left pocket and was very careful not to get caught in any crowds nor to become completely isolated until I was well away from Montmartre.

So, this time in Paris, I was still paranoid.  I brought the empty wallet again.  On Monday, we went to Montmartre.  I was very nervous about going there.  I had The Wife take everything valuable out of her purse and leave it in the apartment.  I took nothing but 20 euros and a bank card which I carried in a place inaccessible to anyone not very intimate with me.  We got to Montmartre without any problem.  We looked around, ran into a friend, Kevin (of the JACK Quartet) had lunch with him, lectured him about the dangers of pick pocketing, went to the Arc d'Triomphe, walked the length of the Champs Elysee down past the Place de le Concorde, walked through the Jardin de Tuilleries, took a ride on a giant ferris wheel, then found the metro to go back to the apartment.

By then, it was around 8 o'clock and we were very tired, having walked five or six miles, easily.  No problem on the first metro (the Paris metro system really is fantastic, but I will leave raving about that to some other time.)  We switched trains at Chatelet les Halles, a busy central station where a lot of subway lines connect, and which is a particularly notorious place for pick pockets.  As we got to the track, the train was ready to pull out and was packed to the brim.  In fact, it had trouble leaving because one passenger had a couple of wheels of a baby buggy sticking out and the doors could not close.  No problem, trains on the line come every 3 to 5 minutes, we would wait for the next train.

We waited and waited and waited.  By 8:30, the train still had not come, there was a large crowd waiting and it was obvious that there was going to be a mad scramble to get on the next train.  I patted my empty wallet several times, just in case any thieves were sizing me up as a potential victim.  When the train finally came, I was determined that we were going to be on it.  I was tired and I wasn't about to let those other impolite people push on ahead of me and make me wait another half hour for another train.

We made it, just barely, but people were squashed together like the crackers that had been in the bottom of my bag all day (it's hard to think of a metaphor other than "sardines" in this situation, even though it's way overused.  Try it sometime.)  There was nobody around me that looked or acted particularly suspicious.  I just kept my hands around my wife and her purse, so nobody could snatch them.  The train was so packed that some people farther away from the door than The Wife and I could not get off when their stop came up, because people just would not move.  The man announced that they were getting off at the next stop, no matter what, and did kind of a rugby scrum pushing dive with his giant suitcase that got them off at the next stop.

The next stop was ours, and as we got off, I felt for the fake wallet and it was gone.  I don't know when it happened, but I imagine it was when everyone's attention was diverted by Rugby Man and his Scrum, not that I think he was a confederate.

So, the lesson, my friends is not that everyone WILL get pick pocketed in Paris.  The lesson is that if you do stupid things, like carry your money in a wallet on your left hip, and insist on fighting big crowds because you want to go where you want to go when you want to go, you WILL be pick pocketed.  The other lesson is that you don't mind it so much when you've scammed the scammers.  (The Wife did feel a little sorry for the thwarted pick pocket.  While I was gloating about how I would have liked to see the disappointment on his face when he opened that wallet, she said compassionately, "Well, maybe he got someone else's money.")

Saturday, July 23, 2011

40th Anniversary Report: Tumbling Tumbleweeds

So, we were in Vienna a few days last week, being shown the sights by Brother Number Four, when we visited the Leopold Museum on July 15.  The Wife was particularly interested in the collection of Gustav Klimt paintings.

While wandering around the museum, I happened to notice (well, "happened" is not exactly the right word, but it will have to do for now,) a very attractive young woman, in her late 20s or early 30s, with bright red hair, wearing an elegant, long butt-hugging dress, very high heels, a black hat and veil, long black gloves and a red fur.  She looked like she had stepped out of a fin-de-siecle painting and was casually strolling around to see who else was in the museum.  I tried hard not to stare, but to casually look at the Klimt's, which I'm sure were wonderful, while keeping an eye on where she was.  Nobody in the museum was talking with her, except for the young man accompanying her, but everyone was staring at her, while trying hard not to stare.  I half-expected her at some point to climb back into a painting and resume a mysterious smile.

There was no point in pretending to The Wife that I was not admiring this young woman, everyone in the museum was watching her with great fascination (men) and envy (women.)  I tried to get The Wife, and also Brother Number Four (who has an amazing way with women) to go ask her what her schtick was, but everyone, including me, was too shy.

Finally, we left the museum and outside on the steps, there were some musicians playing music and some young people slowly tumbling down the steps.  Here is some video I took of that sight.
While watching that strange performance, I noticed the mysterious young lady in red at the bottom of the stairs also watching it.  After trying again to get The Wife and Number Four Brother to go find out what's up, I finally decided I would do it.  So, I went over and asked her why she was dressed like that. She told me that she always dresses like that; she like the decadence of the fin de siecle area.  I asked her where she was from -- it turned out she was from Poland; she's a costume designer and she works
with the dance troupe that was tumbling down the stairs.  They had been brought to Vienna by the Polish consulate to perform later that evening and this was kind of a preview.  We continued talking about people staring at her, and whether many actually came up and talked with her (not many,) animal rights advocates and their objections to her wearing fur, our upcoming trip to Paris, etc. As I was talking, I glanced to my side and there at my right elbow (that was after the  picture was taken) were Brother Number Four and The Wife, trying to listen in on the conversation, but too shy to get involved themselves.

The Wife and I were quite impressed with the whole deal -- the strangely dressed young woman and the artistes tumbling down the stairs, so the next morning at the Vienna Airport, we decided to see if we could impress anyone.  As we were going down the escalator with our nifty new rolling Swiss bags, The Wife tried to adjust her bag just before she reached the bottom, whereupon it fell over, knocking her over, into me, and I and my nifty new Swiss bag went down, all in a heap at the bottom of the escalator.  We were unhurt, except for our dignity, and we discovered the fun of having everyone around us staring at us.

It was so much fun that when we got to Paris a couple of hours later, we tried it again.  This time, it was at the top of the escalator and The Wife had already safely escaped when my bag and I went down.  Again, there were no serious injuries.  I had a nasty-looking gash in the back of my head, for which The Wife wanted to take me to the socialized medicine hospital to get stitches, but I insisted  on just stanching the blood and hoped for a nasty-looking scar that would gain me respect, with the stares.

As a result of our adventures, The Wife and I see the attraction in getting stared at, but I am trying to talk her into a butt-hugging dress, black hat, veil, gloves and high heels, so we can stop the stair tumbling.  (Alas, no pictures of our escapades.)

Thursday, July 21, 2011

40th Anniversary Report: A Sleepless Night

About a year ago, I realized that The Wife and I had our 40th anniversary coming up August 14, 2011, and I didn't particularly look forward to commemorating by posting the customary before and after pictures in the newspaper,so I had to come up with a really good way to celebrate.

The Wife and I didn't go to Paris for our honeymoon, we went to Montreal (I took along $300 to finance the trip and came back with money left in the wallet.) Three years later we did hit Paris for a few days while we were doing the Grand Tour, just before I entered law school. It had never worked out for us both to return, although I took Son Number Two to Paris about 10 years ago for violin master classes. So, I got the idea that we would spend three weeks in an apartment in Paris for our 40th anniversary.

Then it turned out that Son Number Two's string quartet, JACK, was playing in concert in Reims,  just 45 minutes northeast of Paris by fast rail, on July 14 - 18, and we really could not miss that, and Brother Number Four (who is now 52 years old -- that is more of a shock than my own age) has lived in Vienna for seven years without a visit from us, so we had to go see him while we were in Europe.  All of those things have now been done, and The Wife and I are now happily settled into our beautiful apartment, enjoying the pleasures of Paris -- indisputably the Number One City in the World.

To catch you up on our adventures, we left Champaign on July 12, driving to O'Hare Airport where we would catch a 5:00 o'clock British Airways flight to London.  Everything went fine.  Traffic, no problem. Parking, no problem.  Shuttle to terminal 5, no problem.  Security, no problem.  Getting on the plane, no problem.  Seats, no problem.  I had scored seats just behind the bulkhead separating the business class from the peasants, which gave us more leg room.  Seat mate(s) -- problem.

We were in a three-seat section, the window seat being occupied by a young woman (23, and from Macedonia, we later found out) and her infant son, big for his age, but under two years old (or so she claimed) so he could ride for free sitting on her lap.  The plane had not yet left the gate when he began to cry -- not whimper -- cry.  Her response, quite sensibly enough, was to tell him to "stop that" and try to get him to drink his bottle of milk.  He would take a few gulps and then start crying again.  This went on continuously all the way across the Atlantic -- thankfully only an eight hour trip, not the six weeks it took my ancestors to come the other way.

I felt sorry for the mother, her child, for us and the other passengers.  I have never seen a mother as ill equipped for her job.  She had brought absolutely nothing to entertain or distract the baby, other than the bottle.  She had brought no books, no toys, no tapes -- nothing.  All night long, as he cried, she would say, "Stop that. Shut up."  She said she had given him Benadryl before the trip, and gave him another dose on the plane, apparently to try to drug him to sleep.  He did sleep for maybe an hour of the flight, but otherwise he was crying.

I was not angry with the mother.  I think she was just ignorant about how to travel with the child.  How could I be angry with the child?  He was obviously miserable, upset and didn't want to be there as badly as we didn't want him there.  The mother had lived in the United States for three years, she had no relatives here, other than her husband, who was also from Macedonia, but who was not making the trip.  I think she never had anyone to teach her parenting skills, and although some mothers can pick up parenting naturally, some need to be taught.

Joel Stein has a funny article in last week's Time about traveling with children - his solution is to put them in their own compartment in the back, and to segregate everyone else by their own demographic.  I don't like that idea.  I don't relish the thought of being in a compartment with a bunch of old overweight white guys.  I think the belching and the farting might be worse than hearing a baby cry all night long.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Obed is moving on up

So, here's my 8-month-old grandson, Obed, figuring out how to climb stairs.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems 1990-2010Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems 1990-2010 by Elizabeth Alexander

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a collection of poems written by Elizabeth Alexander over the last 20 years. One of Ms. Alexander's poetry books was a finalist for the Pulitzer prize. She read her poem, "Praise Song for the Day," at Barack Obama's inauguration in 2009. She has won a number of poetry awards and is chair of the African American Studies Department at Yale. So, obviously, smarter people than me think she is a great poet. It would take more chutzpah than I have, a simple, unlearned Amish boy, to criticize this book. I just know what I like. And I don't like this poetry.

I suppose the purpose of publishing a book of mostly previously-published poetry by a particular author is to show how the author has developed over the years. I will grant you that the latter poems appeal to me more than the early poems. (So, why not just leave out the early poems? Because I don't know what I'm talking about when I don't like these poems. They're great; they must be great because the experts have said so.) It's not that I hate all poetry. When I'm inaugurated as president, I want Julia Kasdorf or Rona Laban or David Wright to read one of their poems. Or, if they are busy, Billy Collins will do. Elizabeth Alexander? Meh.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

LuckyLucky by Alice Sebold

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is an excellent book, a memoir that concentrates mostly on the author's rape as a college freshman at Syracuse University and the traumatic aftermath. I liked the first three-fourths of the book even more than her most famous book, "Lovely Bones," which recently came out as a movie. There is no question that as a practioner of the craft of writing, she is superb. The last fourth of the book left me a little skeptical about what she was leaving out and kept me from giving the book my top rating.

JACK live at the Greene Space in NYC on Thursday

Saturday, April 02, 2011

A Death in the FamilyA Death in the Family by James Agee

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The advantage of not having been an English major in college is that all the classics are new to me. This book, the only novel by James Agee, may be the finest novel I have ever read. It is the only one he ever wrote and it was published posthumously in 1946, two years after he died. Agee was well-known in his life-time for a work of non-fiction about depression-era tenant farmers, "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men," and for his movie reviews.

"A Death in the Family," won the Pulitzer Prize for literature. It is said to be based on Agee's own life. Not much happens in the way of plot. The father of a little boy is killed in an automobile accident. The book skillfully explores the relationship between the boy and his father and the rest of the family. It describes with sensitivity how the boy felt about his father's death, a mixture of sadness and exhilaration that he was now "half an orphan." The prelude is a description of a walk the son takes with his father downtown and back. Its descriptions are astounding. They remind me a lot of Irene Nemirovsky's descriptions in "Suite Francais," which was written around the same time, in their vividness and authenticity.

Even if you generally don't read fiction, this is one book everyone MUST read. The truths in it are far beyond any nonfiction you will ever read.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Annual Books and Movies List - 2010

Every year since I started this blog, I have listed and rated the books I read and listened to and the movies I watched in theaters. I never got around to doing it for 2010 for some reason, mainly because I wasn't blogging much at all around the end of year. So, for myself as much as for anyone else, here is my list.

Just a note about methodology: The ratings are based on five stars being the highest. The books are ones I have read or listened to this year, some of them for the second or third time. I read (or listened to) 58 books this year, down from last year's record 67. Eleven were non-fiction; 56 were fiction.

Although five stars is officially my highest rating, if a book makes me say, "Wow!!" at the end, I might give it Five Plus Stars. Five Plus Stars should be rare; last year I awarded none of those. Either I read better quality books this year or I was feeling more generous as I read five books that got Five Plus Stars.

I only list 25 movies this year, down from 42 last year. The movies I listed are ones I saw in theaters because of my conviction that seeing DVDs at home on even large television screens is not experiencing the whole movie as it was intended by the directors of the movies. I can change. Having allowed The Wife and Son Number One to talk me into acquiring a large flat screen tv with a blu-ray DVD player and an on-line connection, I find that I am enjoying watching movies at home as much or more than watching them in a theater. Plus the convenience and low cost of watching Netflix, particularly their instant offerings, has meant that the vast majority of movies I am watching now are at home, so for 2011, I will list and rate those also. The movies marked Ebertfest were ones I saw at the Roger Ebert Film Festival here in April. Most of them were not in wide release and many are not even available on Netflix.

My book of the year is Generosity by Richard Powers

Five Plus Stars
Generosity Richard Powers
Of Mice and Men John Steinbeck
The Bridge of San Luis Rey Thornton Wilder
The Gravedigger's Daughter Joyce Carol Oates
The Poisonwood Bible Barbara Kingsolver

Five Stars

Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories Annie Proulx
Bridge of Sighs Richard Russo
Catcher in the Rye J.D. Salinger
Country Driving Peter Hessler
Digging to America Anne Tyler
Good-Bye Columbus and Other Short Stories by Philip Roth
Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen
My Father's Tears: Short Stories John Updike
Noah's Compass Anne Tyler
Nonviolent Communication Marshall Rosenberg
The Art of Travel Alain de Bottom
The Maple Stories John Steinbeck
Zeitoun Dave Eggers

Four Stars

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius Dave Eggers
An American Type Henry Roth
Elementals A.S. Byatt
Family Meeting Miles DeMott
Following the Equator Mark Twain
How Proust Can Change Your Life Alain de Bottom
Imperfect Birds Anne Lamotte
Jaybar Crow Wendell Berry
La's Orchestra Saves The World Alexander McCall Smith
Last Night in Twisted River John Irving
Letting Go Philip Roth
Pylon William Faulkner
Revolutionary Road Richard Yates
Sanctuary William Faulkner
She Got Up Off The Couch Haven Kimmel
Solar Ian McEwan
The Facts Philip Roth
The Good Boatman: A Portrait of Gandhi by Rajmohan Gandhi
The Help Kathleen Stockett
The Women T. Coraghessan Boyle
When She Was Good Philip Roth

Three Stars

Alaska James Michener
A Tale of Two Revolts Rajmohan Gandhi
Deception Philip Roth
Diary of A Pigeon Watcher Doris Schwerin
Ella Minnow Pea Mark Dunn
Girl With Curious Hair David Foster Wallace
In Dubious Battle John Steinbeck
Musicophilia Oliver Sacks
Songs Without Words Ann Packer
The Bean Trees Barbara Kingsolver
The Breast Philip Roth
The Clinton Tapes Taylor Branch
The Flying Troutmans Miriam Toews
The Professor of Desire Philip Roth

Two Stars

I Like You Amy Sedaris
My French Whore Gene Wilder
Once On A Moonless Night Dai Sijie
South of Broad Pat Conroy
Traveling With Pomegranates Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Kidd Taylor


Five Plus Stars

The Messenger (also my movie of the year.)

Five Stars

A Single Man
Song Sung Blue
The Kids Are All Right
Vincent: A Life in Color (Ebertfest)

Four Stars

Crazy Heart
It's Complicated
Synecdoche, New York
Up In The Air
Wall Street II
You The Living

Three Stars

Dinner For Schmucks
Extraordinary Measures
I Capture the Castle
Man With A Movie Camera (Ebertfest)
Morning Glories
Pink Floyd: The Wall
The Last Station
The New Age

Two Stars

Apocalypse Now Redux (Ebertfest)
Leading Ladies

Sunday, March 06, 2011

What I Saw Under the Table Last Night

Last night I attended a dinner hosted by a group that promotes discussion and understanding among the Abrahamic religions (Jewish, Christian, Muslim, all of whom claim the blessing God supposedly gave to the descendants of Abraham.) I went primarily to support my brother, the Humble Philosopher/Carpenter/Farmer who gave the initial presentation about a document called A Common Word Between Us and You, prepared by a group of Muslim scholars and religious leaders to Pope Benedict and other Christian leaders following a speech by the Pope in which he appeared to denigrade Muslims (once again.) A rabbi, the head of a local Christian seminary and a Muslim leader spoke in response to the letter. The food was good, the discussion was interesting and I really was not looking under the tables because I was bored. Honest. Nor because I have a shoe fetish.

It was purely accidental that I happened to glance under a table and saw some very sexy-looking very high heeled shoes being worn by a Muslim woman in full hijab. She had everything covered from top to bottom except her face and her shoes. She looked good. Actually, to this old man, she looked better than Britney Spears climbing out of a limousine with a very short skirt hiked up to her waist and not wearing underwear. But, then, that's probably because I grew up Amish where the most daring footwear a young woman could put on were sneakers.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Remember Me?

OK, it's time to get the old blog fired up again. I doubt that I have any readers left after that long hiatus, but I need to write for myself, if no one else. I started the blog almost six years ago as The Wife and I were getting ready to go to Lucerne, Switzerland to see Son Number Two perform at the Lucerne Festival. I started it and named it partly as a take off on Mark Twain's "An Innocent Abroad," in which he recounted his adventures visiting Europe, including Lucerne. Since then it has evolved (or devolved) into a little bit of politics, some Amish arcana, some book and movie reviews and whatever else strikes my fancy.

I love Facebook, but unfortunately, it has drained some of my writing creativity. You can write a sentence or two and get immediate feedback from people you know. It's easier to post photographs and to see your friends' pictures. It has also been a very busy time for me at work, so given the time demands, I have taken the easy way out.

This week, I bought tickets for The Wife and I to go to Europe to celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary in July. We'll be going to Vienna for a few days to see my brother, The Do-Gooder, and then to Paris for a couple of weeks and return via London. While we're in Paris, we'll run up to Rheims one night to hear JACK play, and on our way home, we'll hear the quartet play again in London, at the venerable Wigmore Hall, as part of that venue's 125th anniversary celebration. So, I'll have lots to write about this summer and I need to write it so when I'm an old man, I can go back and read it and remember what we did.

I have not been keeping the blog (I won't say readers because I doubt I have any left) up to date on the growth of the cutest baby in the world, Grandson Number One. We're going to go see him in Brooklyn two weeks from today. Meanwhile, here's a picture I just love of Son Number Two and Grandson Number One.

The Third Generation