Saturday, February 27, 2010

Books & Other Arts Film Review: The Order

Movie poster image courtesy of Wikipedia and Grandpasfootsoldier

"What a mess!". This is a riff on the famous Bette Davis quote "What a dump!" from the 1949 film "Beyond The Forest". However, "what a mess" applies to the 2003 film "The Order". I think writer/director Brian Helgeland must have missed working with Heath Ledger, Shannyn Sossamon and Mark Addy so much after having assembled them for the 2001 film "A Knight's Tale", that he threw "The Order" into production just to have the pleasure of working with them again.

The melange of accents alone is enough to make you wonder. Heath Ledger does nothing to conceal his Aussie accent, Mark Addy does mask his British accent in order to invoke an Irish accent (I'm not joking) and Benno Fürmann speaks with what I'd have to classify as "unidentifiable European accent". I thought it might have been Russo-Polish, but given that he's German, and his character is supposed to have been Italian, I know my initial guess is unlikely.

When the film opens, we see an elderly priest on a bicycle, traversing Rome. Shocks of white hair flying in the wind, the priest arrives at a cupola which is evidently his residence, and also hasn't had the benefit of any substantial housekeeping since around the time the Magna Carta was signed. The priest, a Fr. Dominic, is visited by a man named William Eden (the enigmatic, nevertheless suave Benno Fürmann) who asks him if he's ready. Ready for a visit from Molly Maid is most likely, but no, Mr. Eden, it seems, has something much more sinister in mind. In the next scene we see a young priest, Fr. Alex, on his way into his church in New York City. Earnest, but at the same time unfeeling, Fr. Alex faces away from his congregants and toward the crucifix during Mass, and celebrates the Mass in Latin. (For those of you who aren't Roman Catholics, with some regional exceptions, Masses in America have been been celebrated in English since Vatican II, under Pope John XXIII in the early 1960's.) While distributing Communion, a communicant tells him "I need to speak to you", so after Mass we see him with Fr. Alex outside the church. The communicant is no other than Michael Cardinal Driscoll, Fr. Alex' Cardinal (played with a certain haminess by Peter Weller) to tell him that his mentor, Fr. Dominic, was found dead at his home in Rome, and that the Diocese of New York is sending Fr. Alex to Rome the following day. Cardinal Driscoll smokes cigarettes, has his own red cigarette case and cuts a figure I could only hope to describe as Max Von Sydow meets Prada.

Back at his home (the rectory), Fr. Alex phones his pal Fr. Thomas. It seems Fr. Alex, Fr. Thomas, and the late Fr. Dominic were the last remaining priests in an order called The Carolingians (again, as a Roman Catholic, the order is a fictitious one, I have to say this). This order's speciality, it seems, is in exorcising demons and laying to rest all forms of "the undead". Prior to Fr. Thomas' phone ringing, as a matter of fact, he's seen in France performing an exorcism on a fleeing man who runs out into a street and is immediately impaled by a florist's delivery van. Rushing up to the van, Fr. Thomas sees the dying man who takes on the countenance of a demon, and the demon taunts Fr. Thomas by telling him The Black Pope will soon rise to power and ascend the Papal Throne. (Again, as an RC, "the Black Pope" is a mention of an anti-Pope, or a pretender to the Papal Throne, or the "evil" Pope who supposedly will rule the church at the "end of days", per popular American lore. Sheesh, seriously I never hear stuff out of anyone like this when I'm in Italy, even when I'm hanging around the Vatican. I've heard specific stories of exorcism, but nothing about an evil Pope ruling at the end of days.) Barely does he have time to hang up the phone with Fr. Thomas, and Mara appears, telling Fr. Alex she was just released. Turns out that Mara (Shannyn Sossamon) has spent the past year in a mental health facility, and she and Fr. Alex met when Fr. Alex was investigating her brother's suspicious death. Apparently (this is implied) Fr. Alex felt she was possessed, and attempted an exorcism on Mara, who in turn attempted to murder him. Mara assures Fr. Alex she's fine (which isn't quite true, as she escaped from the facility) and she wants to go to Rome with him. (We're meant to believe she had the foresight to escape with her passport.)

Arriving in Rome, Fr. Alex and Mara (who looks like, despite the fact she had only the clothes on her back when she met Fr. Alex the night before, as though she could easily appear on the cover of "Vogue" magazine) go directly to Fr. Dominic's and find that there is writing on the table in some form of solid ash in Aramaic. Getting Mara settled in, Fr. Alex then departs for the morgue, bribes the attendant there, and observes on the late Fr. Dominic's body there are a couple of odd marks on his chest. The morgue attendant informs Fr. Alex that Fr. Dominic's body is going to be turned over to the state of Italy for burial, as he is a suicide due to an overdose of sleeping pills. Fr. Alex then seeks out a Bishop (and the identity of this Bishop is indeed a mystery, as the Pope is typically known as the Bishop of Rome, and the man to whom Fr. Alex speaks is definitely not the Pope), who ascertains that Fr. Dominic had been excommunicated and is therefore ineligible (doubly so because of the suicide) for burial in a consecreted cemetary. Fr. Alex has other ideas, however, and steals Fr. Dominic's body from the morgue, and with the assistance of two nuns, buries Fr. Dominic and is approached by his buddy Fr. Thomas, newly-arrived from France.

Back at the cupola, Frs. Alex, Thomas, and Mara pour over an old piece of parchment Fr. Dominic had procured in an antiquarian bookstore in Rome on "sin-eating". (Again, pardon me if my religious faith is showing, but this practice is frowned upon by Mother Church, who views it as heresy.) Cardinal Driscoll shows up just to say "howdy", Fr. Thomas takes Fr. Alex to a place called The Inferno (a club that makes the nightclub in "Star Wars" seem like a meeting of the Junior League) and they learn from a hooded figure named Chirac of a clue to a second, missing piece of parchment. In the meantime William Eden approaches Fr. Alex inside St. Peter's Basilica and reveals that he is a centuries-old sin-eater, and shows Fr. Alex how he became one. It seems William Eden's father and older brother were working on the construction of St. Peter's Basilica under the direction of Michaelangelo, and William's brother, Phillip fell. Phillip was refused last rites (a sacrament which used to be called extreme unction, now called the Annointing of the Sick) because the year before, while in Jerusalem, he permitted an Arab a drink of holy water. (Consumption of holy water as a beverage is taboo. Receiving the sacrament of Annointing of the Sick ensures the recipient dies in a state of grace and their soul is eligible to be received into the Kingdom of Heaven.)

I won't go into the rest of the plot, but I will say if I thought the accents were an interesting mix, the plot is also quite the mix. There is borrowing from/references (not overt) to Dante's Divine Comedy, the films "The Omen", "The Exorcist" and "The Ninth Gate". Using a name like "William Eden" is yet another attempt to wink at the viewer; "William" means "protector" and "Eden" is an ever-so obvious reference to Paradise.

The film's plot has gaping holes, and ultimately we are left feeling unsatisfied. As talented an actor as he was, as evidenced in vehicles like "Brokeback Mountain", "Ten Things I Hate About You", "The Dark Knight" and "Candy", Heath Ledger certainly deserved much better than this plot could possibly give him as an actor. Perhaps the next time Mr. Helgeland enjoys a cast so much, he could simply ask them to join him "ensemble" for a pleasant weekend in the country. Anything but a film that is as hopeless a mish-mash as "The Order". (And "The Disorder", would be a much more fitting title, as well as cover any "truth-in-advertising" clause 20th Century Fox may want to engage in for viewers of its films.)

Monday, February 22, 2010

Slice Of Life: Angels Do Exist!

I was supposed to see a film I would have reviewed today. Bad weather prevented me from getting out and seeing it. I am still reading two books I hope to review here soon.

We had quite a bit of snow overnight and today. I was supposed to go to a seminar on resumes (despite the fact I think my friend Carla did a lovely job with mine) and I got an e-mail this morning stating the seminar would be cancelled due to inclement weather. Finally late this afternoon it stopped snowing.

I would say we received about 7-8 inches of snow. We do not have a snow-blower, unlike most of our neighbors, but we do have two shovels. I worry about Tom shoveling, because he is a smoker, and every year in Michigan people (usually men) die from heart attacks when they're shoveling after a snowstorm. So I went out and began to shovel. After about 15 minutes Tom joined me, so he took the part of the driveway I hadn't reached yet, and I took the sidewalk. A few cars came down the street--people coming home from work, I guessed. All of a sudden a little sedan came down the street, and the driver, a young woman, rolled her window down. I thought perhaps she was going to ask us directions, but she said "Do you need any help? Can I shovel for you?" I said to her "are you sure?" and she said "Yes! Absolutely! I would love to help you if I can!". So I took her up on her offer. She was tall, slender, pretty and had brown hair and eyes and was wearing sweat pants and a sweatshirt that said "Chicago" on it. I asked Tom if he wanted to stop, but he said no, he was fine, so the young lady took my shovel and began at the bottom of our driveway and I went back into the garage to get some handled jugs of ice-melter to put down. I could hear her making small talk with Tom, and when I returned, they were almost through. So I asked this young lady if she was a college student, and it turns out she attends a community college not far away, and she works at a Dunkin' Donuts about a half-mile away, and she's studying nursing, and her mom is also a nurse. She was so sweet and pleasant, and I told her the story of our mom dying and then my hospitalization and lymphoma diagnosis. So...when she went to leave, she said she would love to help us any time with shoveling or mowing the lawn, and she gave me her name and phone number and said "don't hesitate to call!". I just can't believe it! What an angel! I told her I wished I could pay her but I just lost my job last month (which always sounds funny to me, like I accidentally mis-placed it somewhere!) and if ever she needed a personal reference, I'd be happy to give one.

Tom was in the garage, and when I came back in, he said to me, "you know, there's not a lot of people like that left in the world", and I most certainly agree!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Film Review: An Education

Movie poster courtesy of Wikimedia

I apologize for no post yesterday, but I lost internet connectivity. Not sure why. Oddly, my internet is bundled with cable and telephone, and the household land-line was also non-functional. Cable TV held up, though, so we were able to tune in the Olympics!

The film "An Education" is actually a film adaptation of a memoir by Lynn Barber. Barber had originally penned an article that then led to the memoir. However, she did not write the screenplay, but rather turned that over to veteran author/screenplay writer Nick Hornby. Barber actually had some degree of approval over the screenplay and has been pleased with Hornby's work.

In postwar, Cold-War era suburban London, young, pretty Jenny Mellor (Carey Mulligan) lives with her parents. Her father (played by a particularly jowly, toothy Alfred Molina) goes out of his way to impress upon her the importance of studying and cultivating very particular hobbies to assist her in attaining the family goal of getting Jenny admitted to a college in Oxford. Her passions, French and jazz, are largely discounted by her father as frivolous things that take her concentration away from what he views as really important. Her mother (Cara Seymour), an attractive woman, plays a rather tacit peacekeeper role.

One cold day, waiting for the bus in a rainstorm, Jenny and her cello are picked up by a handsome stranger a bit older (Peter Sarsgaard, managing to look a bit like the guy next door, but definitely not the boy next door). He assures Jenny his intentions are about keeping her cello dry, so she lets him load the cello case into the back seat, starts to walk alongside the car, a stunning burgundy roadster, and then as the weather turns worse, accepts his initial proposal she enter the car. Introducing himself as David, the man asks Jenny about her music, concerts, and demonstrates not only some knowledge of classical music, but of the local musicians who play it. Jenny is impressed, and the ride home is short, and she gets out, safely home with her cello and none the worse for wear.

The following Thursday, when departing to play in the concert, accompanied by her parents, Jenny discovers a stunning arrangement of flowers on the front steps, with a card addressed to her. They're from David. Her parents, unaware of who David may be, show concern, but hurry off with their daughter for the concert. The next day, out with her friends, the 16 year-old surburbanite spies David and walks up to thank him. He asks if she's busy on Friday, and suggests they attend a classical music concert in London's West End together with a couple of his friends, Danny and Helen. Excited by the prospect, but grounded in reality, Jenny informs David it's unlikely her parents will consent, especially after David suggests they have supper after the concert. With her schoolgirl friends giggling in the background, David tells her not to worry, he'll handle her parents, and if they don't consent, he'll simply give her two concert tickets and she can attend with one of them.

Naturally, Jenny's father goes ballistic upon hearing this and says Jenny will have to attend the concert with him--until his wife informs him of the location, which he doesn't want to have to visit, claiming it's too far. David arrives at the appointed hour, and does everything short of charming the birds out of the trees. Jenny's parents, deeming David jovial and trustworthy, permit him to take Jenny to the concert and to supper afterwards with his "aunt Helen". Meeting Danny and Helen at the concert hall, Jenny is struck by how sophisticated David's friends appear. Helen in particular (Rosamund Pike looking incredibly like a young Catherine Deneuve) is a source of delight for Jenny, as she's clothed in a beautiful dress, a matching white stole and white opera gloves. Jenny overestimates her new acquaintance's intellectual capabilities, though, and when she begins speaking French to Helen, Helen is very evidently lost. After the concert, the two couples repair to a supper club, where they smoke cigarettes, drink champagne cocktails and listen to a singer (Beth Rowley, dressed and coiffed in a manner that I can only describe as a cross between Marilyn Monroe and a Barbie doll) warbling jazz tunes. All this is heady for Jenny, whose peers are her schoolgirl pals and a would-be teen suitor Graham, who is as socially awkward as the day is long, and who may be out of his league intellectually with Jenny.

At school, Jenny finds herself subjected to teasing by the other girls about her romance with "an older man". A good student, she struggles with Latin, and her father and teacher, Miss Stubbs (Olivia Williams, who had to be "uglied up" considerably for this role) tell her unless her Latin grades improve, she surely won't be Oxford-bound. All the talk of Jenny's boyfriend circulates through school, and this causes enough concern for the headmistress (Emma Thompson, who somehow manages to convey just the right mixture of the contradictory elements of stylish and matronly) to lecture Jenny on the morality code for the all-girl student body.

David, however, and the alluring, culturally-rich world he lives in, beckon Jenny to a life beyond the Latin translations. Under Helen's tutelage, Jenny learns how to stop dressing like a schoolgirl, and to style her hair and wear make-up in a more contemporary, worldly manner. Together the two couples manage to steal away for a weekend in Oxford, although Jenny insists she will remain a virgin until her 17th birthday. She and David "put one over" on her parents to get their permission for the trip, with David lying, and Jenny corroborating that David's trip is a visit to his alma mater to see his old professor, the esteemed author C.S. Lewis. Sharing a room and a bed, Jenny does keep her word to herself and doesn't have a sexual relationship with David. On the way back to London, however, Jenny sees David and Danny make off with an antique map from an "open house" home, and jaded, she decides to break the relationship off. David placates her, literally sweeping her off her feet and dancing with her in the streets of London, however, and wins her back.

Appearing unexpectedly at Jenny's house for her birthday, and literally bearing more presents than he can carry all at once, David explains to Jenny's parents he'd like them all to take a trip the following weekend to celebrate Jenny's birthday in Paris. Her father objects, stating he'd not enjoy Paris, and David says that given Jenny's passions, the trip would be a good way to show her what a bunch of nonsense French culture is. By now Jenny's parents trust David so much, they permit Jenny and David to take the trip alone together. The couple are enthralled with each other and Paris, and enjoy les bookinistes, the steps of Montmartre, and a picnic dinner on the banks of the Seine, among the many vistas of the city.

Everything appears idyllic. Of course, this means it isn't. Noticing the interest Danny appears to be taking in Jenny, David becomes protective and jealous. He proposes to Jenny, delving into the trunk of his car in a futile effort to find a stolen ring. Not knowing whether to accept, Jenny discusses the matter with her parents. Because they, too, have become so smitten with the charming David, they tell Jenny they'll give their consent. This causes Jenny to question why they'd so suddenly stop encouraging her hard work in school and give in to the prospect of their daughter enjoying an "easy life" with a successful businessman.

Jenny discovers David isn't who he says he is, and confronts him about it on the night they're to celebrate their engagement by taking her parents out to dinner. Jenny even comes to the creepy conclusion that David may have been stalking her when he picked her up in the rain.

Despite the fact Jenny wallows in depression and blames her parents for not taking a full and careful interest in her suitor, Jenny eventually realizes she, too, has failed herself. She defines a new goal for herself, and sets about finding help to achieve that goal. The first person she approaches for assistance rejects her, but the second helps her find her path and ultimately become a success.

The costumes really capture the era. Gentlemen are in nice overcoats, suits and ties. The ladies are, at turns, in tweed suits, argyle sweaters, and chic sheath dresses with leopard-skin prints appearing here and there in coats and hats. The soundtrack is wonderful, and prominently features selections from Beth Rowley and Juliette Greco. In Paris, scenes are perfect for the segment of the film dealing with the giddy atmosphere of love, sex and infatuation.

One of the key scenes in the film features Alfred Molina, earnest and sincere as Jenny's father, apologizing to her on the other side of her bedroom door, for being so blindly trusting of David and all he seemed to offer, and not being more carefully paternal. As an added touch, he leaves Jenny a cup of tea and some biscuits, which is just what a loving British dad would do. All of the scenes with Emma Thompson are powerful vehicles not just for Thompson's own considerable acting skills, but for Mulligan's, too. The dialogue in these scenes is amazing, particularly when Jenny examines the lives of the women who are supposed to be her academic role models, but she observes that in early 1960's London, even with an education, their lives seem to be less than perfectly fulfilling. She also challenges Thompson to explain, as an educator, what the specific value of an education is to young women of the era.

By the end of the film, we see and hear a much humbler Jenny, achieving her goal and observing she's older but doesn't feel wise. The fact of the matter is that she actually is, but the price she's paid is the loss of her innocence. The concept of "growing pains" applies to emotional wounds, too.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Film Review: The Boy In The Striped Pajamas

Movie poster image courtesy of Wikimedia

One learns, with a certain happiness, I think, that some things do indeed "stand the test of time"; school systems in America will order hundreds of copies of books each year like "To Kill A Mockingbird" and "The Pearl". A book I'd noticed on school book lists the past couple of years has been Irishman John Boyne's book, "The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas". (Alternate spelling of "pajamas" in Europe, changed in America to "pajamas".) In 2008, a film adaptation of the book was released.

The film opens in Berlin and focuses on the household of a young family, about to be uprooted by World War II. The father, Ralf, (portrayed by British actor David Thewlis) has just been promoted in the SS, and has a new assignment as the Commandant of a concentration camp. The mother, Elsa (portrayed by American actress Vera Farmiga) is thrilled at her husband's professional success and is under the impression it's a labor camp. In honor of her husband's promotion, she throws a lavish party to celebrate. The children, Gretel, age 12 (portrayed by Amber Beattie)and Bruno, age 8 (portrayed by an ethereal Asa Butterfield) are less than thrilled at the prospect of leaving their beautiful home, their school and their friends in Berlin, but accept the move as a necessity, and are assured by their mother that they'll make new friends. At the party, however, the new Commandant receives less than complete support from his own mother, who is no Nazi enthusiast.

The burnished wood staircase and expansive foyer of the house in Berlin contrast starkly with a cement/brick house surrounded by walls outside of Auschwitz, where the family moves. With no other children to play with, Bruno quickly becomes bored and restless. Standing on a chair to look out of his bedroom window on the day the family moves in, he spies some buildings across the woods, and surmises he's viewing a farm. When a worker appears at the house to deliver vegetables, Bruno tells his mother he finds the "farm worker" strange, and asks why he'd be wearing "striped pajamas".

Eventually his ennui gets the better of the very physically active Bruno, and he steals away to nearby woods and finds a fenced yard. Approaching it, he sees a little boy sitting alone, who appears to be his size and age. He introduces himself, and asks the boy's name (it is Shmuel, the character portrayed by Jack Scanlon) and a friendship begins. Bruno remarks he's never heard a name like Shmuel's before, and noting that Shmuel cannot come out and play with him, but is cordoned off by the fence, he asks Shmuel what he's done to merit such treatment. Shmuel matter-of-factly announces he's a Jew.

Scenes in the film explore the evolution of the members of the family acquiring an awareness of what is really going on. When we first see Elsa in the first frame of the film, her chauffeur is opening the car door for her, and she's happily carrying a dress box. Gretel is shown playing with dolls, and Bruno's literary choices run the gamut of adventure books that would appeal to an 8 year-old boy. As time at their home outside of Auschwitz passes, each of them is stripped of their prior assumptions about the Commandant, the war, and the prisoners. Gretel abandons her massive doll collection and begins collecting War posters extolling the virtues of the Fatherland. Elsa is inadvertently alerted to the crematoria nearby, and Bruno is caught between seeing his father as a good, kind man and developing an understanding that his father is a key component in a process to exterminate good, kind people.

This film has drawn all kinds of criticism. (As has the book.) Boyne has said the book is a historical fiction. Rabbi Benjamin Blech condemned the book as an abomination, stating there is no credibility in a premise that the members of the Commandant's family could be so ignorant of "The Final Solution" that they'd not realize what was going on and the meaning of it. I think this criticism misses the mark. The film isn't about The Holocaust, just as, IMO, the film "Life Is Beautiful" isn't about The Holocaust. Both films are about families. "The Boy In The Striped Pajamas" is also about childhood friendship, and how important and innocent it is. Vera Farmiga said she read the script and wondered how a Third Reich wife couldn't know what her husband was up to, and then she read journals of two wives of Third Reich Commandants and understood infinitely more.

This review will not delve further into revealing details of the plot. There are no spoilers I will reveal. I will say that I thought during the last 10 minutes of the film, my heart might beat right outside of my chest.

The acting in this film is amazingly wonderful. Vera Farmiga portrays Elsa with the ferocity of a lioness. Asa Butterfield carries this film, and that a kid his age can appear in such a large segment of the film (120 or so scenes out of the 140 that comprise the film) is a feat most actors three times his age can't handle. Jack Scanlon is keen to portray Shmuel in a way that is not too "precious". We don't see Shmuel as a puppy we'd like to rescue, but he captures well the fact that he's a little boy and a vulnerable victim as well. Amber Beattie deftly handles the transition her character makes, entering adolescence and abandoning childhood for what she believes to be worthier and more adult ideals. Perhaps the most complex role is given to David Thewlis, Commandant Ralf, who finds the professional demands of his career overtaking his paternal instincts to care for and about his family. The musical score by James Horner is terrific--lush piano chords accompany Bruno scampering through the woods with a toy airplane. Cinematographer Benoît Delhomme has beautifully captured the woods, the houses, and the costumes and enhanced what the set designers, location captains and costume designer Natalie Ward have done to bring the era to life on the screen.

It has been said that those who fail to understand history are doomed to repeat it. The Holocaust is an important lesson to understand. Each family is also replete with its own history, and important lessons, too.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

It's A Dog's World

For the 8th time, a Scottish terrier has won "Best of Show" at the renowned Westminster Dog Show. Her name is Sadie. I'm hardly surprised she's a champion. I owned a Scottie. Well, more accurately, he owned me, I suppose, as well as the rest of my family. As a kid, I wanted a dog. When I was 10, my siblings and parents chipped in and bought for my birthday a puppy I picked out of a litter in a private home. I named him MacDuff, which I knew was the name of a Shakespearean character from the Bard's tragedy, "Macbeth". He ruled the household and our hearts for many years. He was as loyal as the day is long, and when I went away to university, about a month after my departure, he was found lying outside my closed bedroom door, crying. He lived until I was in my mid-twenties, and despite the fact I no longer lived "at home", he provided excellent companionship for each of my parents.

For a period of time, I lived in Ann Arbor, a few blocks away from one of my former professors. This particular prof was a "dog person" and acquired a Bernese Mountain Dog. His children promptly named her Heidi because, they reasoned, she was Swiss, and so should share the moniker with the famous character from children's literature, who lived in the Alps with her grandfather. My former prof and his family traveled fairly often, and the dog needed exercise, so I used to walk her when the family was out of town. She was wonderfully loyal, too, and each time she saw me, assuming it meant a trip to The Arb or Burns Park, her tail would wag enthusiastically.

In my kitchen there is a bulletin board. On the bulletin board for the last several years, I have had a "full size" photographic calendar of Scottish Terriers, with beautiful glossy photos of Scotties in various poses. I'll pen in appointments on the calendar, so my brother will know not to worry if I'm not home. Each month, there are quotes on the calendar, pertaining to dogs and their place in our lives.

These are some of my favorite quotes:

"To err is human, to forgive, is canine"---Unknown

"If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you; that is the chief difference between a dog and a man."---Mark Twain

"Our perfect companions never have fewer than four feet."---Colette

"The great pleasure of a dog is that you may make a fool of yourself with him, and not only will he not scold you, but he will make a fool of himself too."---Samuel Butler, Notebooks 1912

"My little dog-a heartbeat at my feet."---Edith Wharton

"Dogs are our link to paradise. They don't know evil or jealousy or discontent. To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring, it was peace."---Milan Kundera

Well done, Sadie. You've represented your species, your breed and your home state very well.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Nom de Plume

Movie Poster image appears courtesy of Wikimedia
If you had to write a book or an article, or something that was going to be published, and you had to use a name other than your own, what name would you use? Because I speak more than one language, my BFF once suggested that I use "Polly Glot". I don't mind the first name "Polly" but "Glot" as a surname is really quite awful. Can you think of anything more guttural? Her husband, who has a much drier sense of humor and loves the original film "Bedazzled" (starring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore) suggested "Millie Regretti". While the Italian surname is appealing to me on a number of levels, it still leaves something to be desired.

Because my "real name" is a fine example of alliteration, I used to think I would select a name with a similar attribute and use something like "Barbara Bishop". I'm frankly a little miffed at Nora Ephron. In the film "You've Got Mail", Meg Ryan's character has my real-life name. (Gee, and we're both blonde, and her character, like me, had been in the book business.) Occasionally I will do something like show up at the post office to claim a piece of mail and someone will look at my identification and say "why is your name so familiar to me?", and I'll sigh and say "Have you recently seen the film 'You've Got Mail' by chance?", and more often than not, the other person will have their "ah ha!" moment and smile and nod.

One of these days, just one of these fine days, I'm going to write a work of fiction that will feature a really annoying character named Nora Ephron. She'll be so neurotic that Sigmund Freud will spin in his grave. But my name won't be attached to this work, so don't look for it. It'll be written by Kelly Thomas, most likely.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Food, Glorious Food!


It's "Fat Tuesday". Interesting that a day is named after a national epidemic, no? I wrote that very tongue-in-cheek, as I realize "Fat Tuesday" is the literal English translation of Mardi Gras, which is today. The photo is a photo of paczki, a rich deep-fried doughnut popular first in Poland, and now in certain areas of the midwest. (It's pronounced "poonch-key" and this is the plural. A single doughnut is a paczek, pronounced poonch-ick.) The parish where my family resided during my childhood was populated by Polish-American families. My late pal Marty Murphy and I used to call ourselves "token Micks". But man, every year, the day before Ash Wednesday, we'd gorge ourselves on paczki. Packzki dough must be made with real butter, according to one of our Polish-American classmates, and does contain some yeast, so the dough has to rise. In the greater Detroit area, bakeries selling paczki begin working around-the-clock the weekend prior to Ash Wednesday, to meet demand. Many folks will bring them into their places of work, so they'll order boxes of a dozen ahead of time. The doughnuts are always deep-fried, as I mentioned, never baked, and after they cool, they're filled with all kinds of different fillings: bavarian cream, cream cheese, lemon, and many different fruit fillings like apple, strawberry, raspberry, blueberry and prune. New Orleans may have King Cakes(which I've sampled and found delicious), but the part of the country where I reside is Paczki Heaven. After the fillings are inserted, paczki are often either glazed with a clear sugar glaze or granulated or powdered sugar.

All this has been my big build-up to a discussion on cookbooks. Now I have to tell you my parents had really different temperaments, making life in my childhood really interesting, but one of the most acrimonious arguments they ever had was about cookbooks. My mom had quite a collection of them. I remember fondly the Christmas Cookie cookbook that my mother, sister and I seemed to pour over each holiday season, and it served as the impetus for most of the sweet treats coming out of our kitchen in December. I also remember that Mom had an "encyclopedia" set of cookbooks, and if I recall there were at least a dozen, perhaps even eighteen in the set. They ran alphabetically, so in the volume with the letter "S", one would find recipes for sauces, soups, and stews, for example. Well, my parents moved from my childhood home to a smaller house in the early 1980's. Mom had many of her cookbooks in one box, and Dad threw the box out. Deliberately. I don't know if this was his not-so-subtle way of telling Mom that her cooking was either not great (which I'm sorry to say is the truth) or much too absent (which was also the truth, as Mom loved to order take-out), but the fury and uproar his action caused was legendary.

The incident made me realize something, though, about cookbooks. My mother lived through the Great Depression in another country. As the eldest of four, she sometimes passed up meals because her family didn't have enough food to feed the entire family, and she had a couple of younger siblings she adored and sacrificed for gladly. My mother did have a very reliable repetoire of recipes she could turn out well for company at our house, however, and as a hostess she was generous and gracious to all visitors who stayed for meals with us. (My father was also a host who was famous for saying to guests "Please, eat up! Have more! Give the house a good name!" and I can say without fear of contradiction, if you left our home hungry, it was surely your own fault.) The Great Depression shaped my mother's psychological make-up and she began to hoard, I think because of it. I am still throwing out food in the basement of the last house my mom lived in--there are cans and jars of things so old they've exploded and I wear rubber gloves every time I'm down there pitching things into trash cans or plastic trash bags.

The acquisition of cookbooks, and always having a lot of them around, was every bit as important to my mother as having all the food itself had been. They formed part of my mother's "Scarlett O'Hara" moment of saying "As God is my witness, I'll never go hungry again!", something I never actually heard my mom say, but something she obviously felt and lived out throughout her entire lifetime.

I hope sometime in the future to blog in a bit more detailed manner about cookbooks and share with you some of the ones I've enjoyed using. But I wanted to share this blog with you so you might understand that a cookbook isn't always just a place for recipes. To my late mother, it also served as a psychological safe haven of sorts.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Is There Such A Thing As "Chick-Lit"?

I enjoy thinking of myself as an open-minded person, and I suspect we all do. To that end, I have friends who are men and friends who are women. I have tall friends, short friends, straight friends, gay friends, thin friends (they're a particular challenge and my BFF recently joined them) and heavy-set friends.

On Christmas Eve I had the pleasure of having lunch at the home of friends who are a married couple, Dave and Helene. Dave and Helene have been married for over 25 years. I actually met Dave first, and our friendship is some 35 years old now, but I remind him as often as possible that I think he won the marriage lottery because his wife is so delightful and has always treated me with such kindness. Anyway, at this particular luncheon, Helene and I began to talk of a film that had recently been in the movie theaters and had developed from a rather well-known book. Dave, who had gone to put on another pot of coffee, returned to the dining room and asked what we were discussing. When Helene and I told him, I added "you know, chick lit". Well, his eyes all but glazed over immediately and I believe he excused himself for a few moments while Helene and I went on avidly about this new work of pop culture. Now, Dave is a scientist, and he's no slouch intellectually--he's a professor of physics and fully capable of waxing poetic on, of all things, positron emissions. Positron emissions are, I must admit, of marginal interest to me, and only marginally so because I've had a few PET scans in my lifetime. Dave's reading tastes aren't restricted to scientific journals, but he's been reading things on topics like the history of the Vietnam War and a biography of a political figure from the 1960's.

So my question is "does chick lit exist, and if so, why?" Mindful that some topics and characters appeal more to women, I'm not referring to romance novels or what I call "bodice rippers". If a guy who looks like Fabio is on the cover, with all due respect to Fabio, I'll pass on it. I'm talking about books like "The Memory Keeper's Daughter" and "In the Company of the Courtesan". (BTW, I can recommend both novels.) While I thoroughly enjoyed both, I'm also equally capable of enjoying a novel like "Rising Sun" (which was later made into a film starring Sean Connery and Wesley Snipes, which, to think about it, may have helped boost appeal to a female contingent).

One of my doctors is a gentleman. While awaiting his arrival in the exam room one day, I was reading, I believe the Cassandra King novel "Same Sweet Girls" which is a novel about a group of adult women friends who'd all gone to undergraduate school together. Upon entering the room, the doctor asked what I was reading. I said "oh, just some chick lit", and was surprised when he wanted to know more about my selection. He somewhat sheepishly admitted at that point that he's the only male in his household, as he resides with his wife (a librarian in a private school) and two daughters (both in their later teens). He then conceded that his own reading tastes ran along the order of "1492" which he very much enjoyed.

Yet another male pal of mine is a huge sci-fi fan, and has more copies of Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury works than some small-town libraries probably have. By profession, he's also a scientist. By nature, he's an enthusiastic reader and possessed of a great wit, sharp mind and acute imagination.

So what's up with "chick-lit"? Is it real? If so, why? Books with both male and female protagonists have been around for centuries. If "chick-lit" exists, is it an offshoot of the "bodice-ripper" or of a different genre of literature altogether?

Sunday, February 14, 2010

For The Love of...Love

Well, here we are: it's Valentine's Day. I'm wondering what you find romantic. At a time in my life when I was feeling particularly vulnerable and had just met someone very special, with whom I'd fallen in love, I found myself much more open to themes of love in literature and films. I read "Love In the Time of Cholera" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (I'd already read some of his earlier works, including "One Hundred Years of Solitude") and thought it was sheer genius and captured true love perfectly. I recommended it to my BFF who couldn't get very far into it at all and said she simply couldn't relate to the characters on any level at all.

Around this same time, I went to see two French films, and was deeply moved by them. One was Louis Malle's "Au Revoir Les Enfants", which doesn't really have anything to do with "romantic" love at all, but more aptly reflects the love of two young schoolboys in France who are friends (one is Jewish) at the onset of World War II. The other film, "Le Grand Chemin" deals with love in a few different relationships, but I was so moved by it that when I emerged from The Michigan Theater, my eyelids were actually swollen from crying. Love, I learned, will do that to you.

I know we all have different notions of what music we find romantic. I am fond of Norah Jones' rendition of the Hoagy Carmichael song "The Nearness of You", although Branford Marsalis has recorded an instrumental version of it that is just as lovely, IMO. Sting's work appeared in the film "Leaving Las Vegas" and one of his songs "My One And Only Love" is utterly superb and swoon-inducing. Years ago, while I was still in Europe, Sting launched a new CD featuring a song called "We'll Be Together" that I also found pretty wonderful. A song I once sang in public (at someone's request, not spontaneously!) was "The Shadow Of Your Smile", also known as the theme song from the film "The Sandpiper", and I associate this song in a wry, wistful way with love, too, as is the case with the Sheryl Crow-Sting duet "Always On Your Side".

Sometimes love hurts. Sometimes it's good to feel the pain, just to affirm that you're still capable of sensing anything.

And on that bittersweet note, I bid you all a Happy Valentine's Day. If you have someone you love, show 'em while you can. Life is brief, true love is eternal. And it's important to remember, love is never wasted.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Get Thee To A Library!

A library, a library, my kingdom for a library! (Sorry, Mr. Shakespeare, I'm obviously paraphrasing.)

The whole notion of a library is so civilized when you think of it. One of history's seminal events, after all, was the burning of the library of Alexandria. The concept of a library, however, was a remarkable one, and much like the concept of a museum in that it exists "pro bono publico", for the public good. Prior to the inception of a public library, rich folks used to have private book collections in their homes. If you weren't titled, privileged or well-born, you were out in the cold, and doomed to not know things like what color your parachute was, any of Aristotle's fables, or a step-by-step guide to repairing a broken axle on a chariot. While surely information could be acquired in other ways (listening to someone recounting one of Aristotle's fables, or watching a dude doing the axle repair on a chariot), a lot could be lost in translation. (I'm Irish and therefore a descendant of people who were forced to have an oral history. While my whole family is renowned to be a great bunch of talkers and we're said to tell a good tale, it isn't quite the same.) So, if the dude teaching you to repair the chariot axle explained too quickly and hadn't sketched a diagram, or if whoever was relating Aristotle put their own embellishment into his fable, you might not realize it at the time, but you were not in a good place of getting reliable info.

Wealthy families did the same with works of art. If your last name was Medici or Borgia, you were going to have access to fabulous sculptures and paintings in your home, but if you weren't a member of the ruling class, hard luck, no access. The Vatican Museum claims to be the largest and first formal museum in Europe. It's not free and is often crowded, but the money collected at the door goes to the upkeep and restoration of works of art that would otherwise not be available to public view.

On the reading front, enter the library! Home to all, friend to many, stranger to none! You read yesterday that my grade school library wasn't exactly the Taj Mahal. We were very excited as young students when the floor was carpeted and good overhead lighting finally appeared. The public library near my house was not particularly close by foot, but I could ride there on my bike in better weather. I attended a private high school for girls. It was large, but the sister in charge of it had a reputation for being a bit "eccentric". Certain books were banned from the library, as they were deemed "morally unfit" for our consumption, and one of my classmates was once asked to leave due to the fact she was studying from a textbook and "not making use of library resources"! (Lest you think I am a senior citizen, I am not.) I remember my junior year of high school taking an English class entitled "American Novel & Research Paper". While doing research for my thesis for that class, my father drove me downtown, to the Main Library in Detroit. I was enraptured by the majesty of the place! What hours of delight awaited me. It was here that my father revealed to me that his favorite author was James Hilton and his favorite book was "Lost Horizon".

Entering the University of Michigan, I thought I died and went to heaven. The Ann Arbor campus doesn't just have "a library". There is the UGLI (UnderGrad LIbrary), the "Grad", and a host of other libraries for students, faculty and staff to access. I loved studying in the Grad, with sparse carrels, and "the stacks", where, if not careful, you could actually get lost.

In my travels, I've been lucky enough to have spent a bit of time on days of inclement weather to have had the opportunity to explore libraries in Florence and Rome. In my mind's eye, I picture another century, and young students of all ilk combing the shelves of books for poetry, law, history, romance. This is as rich as any bit of history of a place, as valuable as any church or museum could possibly be to understanding another country and culture.

Currently I live in a little town in the midwest of the United States. Our library was temporarily housed in an office building, but moved into "new digs" a few years ago. It's a lovely building, with meeting rooms, and a grandfather clock on the main floor. There's a little ante-room off the main check-out where one can purchase used books. I love the fact I can be at home and reserve a book on the computer, and get an e-mail telling me that it's available for pick-up. Likewise I can check out a DVD of a film I hadn't seen in original release.

As our world is becoming a more digital one, there's talk that the libraries we've known won't be relevant any longer. The NY Times recently ran a story on that.

For my part, I hope libraries remain for a while as a place where both digital and print media can be accessed by all. And's hoping we all find our Shangri-La.

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Early Years As A Reader: What Impressed You, What Distressed You?

I received some feedback (yes, yes, yes, please keep it coming) that my first entry was a bit difficult to read. The blog-reader in question stated we needed more contrast on the screen, so here's an attempt to provide what was requested.

So, now, what books merit your "fave raves"? I must confess to you, despite my life-long love of books, I read some really dreary things during my childhood. I attended a Catholic grammar school from first through eighth grades. I remember the school library, which was located in the basement, as being filled with mostly biographies of saints. While reading something serious (and occasionally inspirational) is certainly necessary to the development of a young mind (and soul), some of these books were truly gruesome (lives of martyrs, for example), others filled me with a spiritual despair of never living up the high standards the saints set forth as examples.

One book I remember devouring from my childhood, however, was Irene Hunt's tome called Up A Road Slowly. The narrator is a young girl, the youngest child in her family of three children, who has lost her mother to an illness. Because her professor-father is too preoccupied with his career, she and her brother are sent off to live with an aunt who is a schoolteacher. The book chronicles her years from the ages of 7 until she's about 17, and as a ten year-old reader, I was utterly fascinated. This book also managed to fit in pertinent quotations of poetry (specifically Sara Teasdale) that bewitched me from the moment I saw them on the printed page.

From earlier in childhood, I cannot remember a book that impressed me quite as favorably as the book I've cited. But what about you? My BFF and I met in high school. Her late mother used to joke about how my BFF would check her favorite book out of the library over and over, during a particular point in her childhood. So again, what about you? Which book first made a long-lasting, great impression on you?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Brand New Day, Brand New Blog

"Books And Other Arts" would seem fairly straight-forward as the name of a blog. But in some senses, it isn't. What comprises one person's art is possibly another person's trash. But starting with "books" seems to be a great place to begin. We can always explore "other arts"---and there are millions of them--a bit later.

I've often said that books were my first friends. I grew up with much older siblings, and as a consequence, I believe, of that, I learned to read at a very early age, and enjoyed most of what I read. Luckily, I did learn to make social connections, and had and still have "flesh and blood" friends, too. But at a young age, I developed a respect, a fascination and reverence for the written word that has continued through my life. I've been very blessed that way. Reading material hasn't simply served me well in providing information to me. It's been a source of entertainment, a way to pass what would be otherwise boring time (especially in airports), a method of re-directing a conversation when things start to get tough ("BTW, did you see that article in the paper [or on the web] today on childhood obesity?". This type of question might deflect my internist momentarily to a discussion about weight, for example.)

Journalists used to learn that when something was in print, it lived forever. Given that newspapers appear to be going the way of the high-button shoe, that observation is certainly up for debate these days. But books that have been in print for some time now have lived, if not forever, for long enough to have either a following or none, a sales history or a record of vanishing into "remainder-land" and have the power to influence, define or help save lives.

For a number of years until just recently, I was in "the book business". I worked for a large, well-known retailer of books. Budget cuts and the economy eliminated my position there. I'm still in mourning to some degree, as I thoroughly enjoyed being around other "bookish" people who shared a passion for reading each day. The book industry itself is undergoing such tumult these days, and it's impossible to predict what may happen. The Kindle, the Sony reader, and dozens of other inventions flooding the market each day (and it almost seems each hour) are promising to revolutionize reading and make life easier for readers. However, these devices are also oft-viewed as precursors of a rapidly vanishing printed page. Newspapers throughout the United States are folding or publishing less frequent editions.

The things I love best about life are reflected so well in books. Like life, some books are serious; some are informational in that they provide specific details on a task, like Chinese cooking or grant-writing. Other books are sheer entertainment, with a few facts thrown in here and there for good measure, or to "hook" the reader. Others still are works of art themselves, like pop-up books. (I have to confess my guilty pleasure, I really enjoy the art of pop-up books.)