Bach and Britten at Epiphany (4 cents)

As the story goes, Benjamin Britten attended a concert with Dmitri Shostakovich to hear Rostoprovich play.  He had never heard him before, and was more than impressed.  After the concert, Shostakovich introduced the composer to the cellist.  Rostropovich was later to say that (and this was a long time ago), he had not heard of Britten.  But they got on well together, and Rostropovich asked Britten if he would write a piece for him.  The result was the Sonata for cello and piano in C major (actually it was the first of five pieces Britten wrote for the cellist who became his close friend), and I heard it (perhaps for the first time) this afternoon at the Church of the Epiphany, performed by pianist Jeffrey Chappell, and cellist Vasily Popov.

Before they started the piece, Popov gave an interesting (if sometimes hard to hear) introduction, talking about the seminal role Rostropovich played in establishing 20th century cello music.  Many pieces were written with his assistance, many pieces were dedicated to him and written with him in mind, and many pieces were the result of works that Rostropovich himself commissioned.  After the concert, reading a little about this piece, I learned that Britten was a little hesitant about writing for Rostropovich because he was, in fact, not at all familiar with the cello.  Perhaps, this was an advantage, because he seemed to push the instrument well beyond its normal breadth; his biggest concern may have been whether a cellist, even the Maestro, could perform it.  For his part, Rostropovich said that when they first tried out the piece, they waited until they had four or five drinks a piece.  Then, he said, we had a lot of fun.

I did not know what to expect.  It’s a five movement sonata and the first, and I think longest, movement is very fast, very loud, and (can I say it respectfully) very chaotic.  I wondered how much of it I could take (I couldn’t really make sense of it) but certainly admired the technical expertise of the musicians.  But with the second movement, the mood changed (and now I see how Rostropovich and Britten could have had fun) with the cello being plucked, and the piano following right along.

So you don’t go out of the concert hall humming the tune (ha, ha), but you have to admire what you have heard (and enjoyed) — two top notch musicians attacking a clearly difficult piece which stretches the cello to its limits, and challenges the accompanying piano.

Before the Britten, each of the performers played a solo number.  Chappell played one of Bach’s toccatas, again with great technical expertise.  I must say, however, that I had to transform the piece, as I was listening, from piano to harpsichord (what’s my trick?) to really enjoy.  Again, looking on line at some descriptions of Bach’s toccatas, I read that, because they are so exuberant (Bach wrote them when he was quite young), they are much better suited to the harpsichord, and rarely performed on the piano (and that you really need to be a good pianist to perform them well).  I think Chappell did a fine job – but his speed was matched by the decibel level – I am sure that this is the way to perform this piece, but because the piano can be so much louder than the harpsichord, the older instrument does seem by far more preferable.

Popov’s solo was also by Bach, a prelude (D major) from Bach’s Suite for unaccompanied cello.  Very nicely done.

Gone Girl at the Avalon – Meh Minus (44 cents)

The new film “Gone Girl” has received a lot of press and pretty good reviews (8.6 on IMDB, for example), and I went to see it yesterday anticipating that I would agree with the (apparent) majority.  Not so.

It’s a very well acted and directed film, and makes a better than normal use of flashbacks, but the plot line is not only weak and silly, it is disgusting.

All I knew is that a young wife suddenly disappeared and that her husband was pegged as the murderer but was innocent.  What I didn’t know is that the wife would turn out to be a sadistic, criminal lunatic, the husband only marginally better, the setting unbelievable, and that there would be a bevy of holes and inconsistencies in the story line.

So, it’s a horror movie (akin to, say, Fatal Attraction or The Hand That Rocks the Cradle) in the guise of a thriller and……who needs it?

Amy Herzog’s “Belleville” – Quick Thoughts (25 cents)

I think that Washington Post critic Peter Marks got it right:  Amy Herzog’s “Belleville”, now at Washington’s Studio Theatre, leaves you “a bit creeped out but less than sufficiently gripped”.  Zack and Abby are newly married Americans living in Paris, where Zack has a job helping to eradicate pediatric AIDS.  But each is more neurotic than the other, their marriage was clearly a colossal mistake, and things obviously have to change.  They do, and for the worst, and what starts out as a fairly typical “can’t we just get along and start from scratch” romantic comedy into a sophomoric horror story, where everything leads to something more unsettled.  Surely, Herzog (and Studio) can do better.

What’s the back story?  It appears that Abby has suffered from serious psychological problems from the day she and Zack first met, and his goal has been to do everything possible to make his wife as secure and as happy as possible (this turns out to be a hopeless task, of course) but his codependency turns out to be largely a manifestation of his own (possibly even more serious) neurosis, which comes out of the proverbial closet leading to unimaginable tragedy.  But the play lacks verisimilitude (after starting as a believable story of just another troubled couple) as Zack’s actions are based on years of major deception, a scale of deception that just cannot be believed.

I saw one other Herzog play, also at Studio, “4000 Miles”, a year or so ago.  A young man stops to stay with his grandmother (an unrepentant Marxist, as I recall) on his bike tour across the country.  He and his grandmother come from different worlds – their lack of previous contact, and the nature of their unexpected contact now, left me cold.

Both these plays have received some strong reviews – but I guess that they are just not for me.

The Michael Obst Musical Score for the Silent “Nosferatu”

“Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens” is a 1922 German silent film, directed by F.P. Murnau.  It is basically a retelling of the Dracula story, not authorized by the heirs of Bram Stoker, author of “Dracula”.  After the film was released (the story line basically the same, with some changed details and all changed names), the Stoker heirs sued and the court ruled for the heirs and ordered all copies of the film destroyed.  Most were, but one remained (I am not sure why or how this happened) and we are today able to see what is now a classic early horror film.

The film is not particularly enjoyable to watch in 2014, except for its historical interest.  The version I saw Monday night at the Goethe Institute in Washington had English subtitles and a musical score written about ten years ago by German composer Michael Obst.  Obst was at the showing, and spoke a bit about the art of creating a musical score for a silent film to the crowd (OK, not really a crowd; there were only about 20 in the theater).

I don’t know how (or if) the Obst score was reviewed when it was first heard, but I think that the composer completely nailed it.  It was a perfect accompaniment for the film.  And his explanation of how he went about writing the music was interesting.  If I remember closely enough, he said that there were three things he needed to accomplish:  first, he needed to portray the general atmosphere of the film; second, he needed to react to particular moments of drama – a fight, a flight, etc; and third, he had to go beyond what the actors were saying (or mouthing) and reflect what their characters would have been thinking.  In other words, he said, and I paraphrase, “the dramaturgy of the music must match the dramaturgy of the film”.

I had never thought of musical scores in this way.  Obst opened my eyes.

Two Notable Concerts ($3.25)

I think that Jeremy Filsell is one of Washington’s finest musicians.  Both a concert organist and concert pianist, he serves as Professor of Organ at the Catholic University of America, artist in residence at the National Cathedral, and music director at the Church of the Epiphany.  His concerts always mesmerize me.

Over the past two weeks, I have had the opportunity to hear him twice, first a piano concert at Epiphany, and then an organ recital at the Cathedral.  Notable.  Why?

I thought his piano recital was notable because he had selected a series of pieces which were just filled with notes.  He played four fairly short pieces by Debussy (an arabesque and three preludes), which were each beautiful in different (but distinctively French) ways, and which shared one characteristic – an overabundance of notes, in each case creating the mood the composer was looking for.  He also played Rachmaninoff’s Sonata no. 2 in B flat major, a piece I did not know, but again one which contained note upon note upon note – this time (as Rachmaninoff is prone to do) the many notes are there to challenge the pianist (and to let Sergei R. prove to himself that he can write a piece with more notes than the last piece).  Filsell more than met the challenge.

Thirdly, Filsell played four short pieces by Francis Pott (British, born 1957), four unique pieces (I certainly had not heard them before, and knew nothing about Pott) that were delightful (and filled with notes).  Pott is a friend of Filsell, it appears.  Two of the pieces, a comic piece titled “The Church Mouse and the Organist” (the church mouse is a quiet little fellow enjoying a quiet little life, until he comes in contact with the sounds of the organist) and “The King Went Forth to Normandy” (a piece honoring the organist on his move to America) were dedicated to Filsell.  These pieces were wonderfully played and accompanied by a delightful explanation of each piece, written (I assume) by Pott.  (For example, speaking of the excitement at the end of the last piece, Potts says:  “The music is much more demanding technically than what has gone before, and represents a letting down of compositional hair….fitting celebration of Filsell’s triumphant progress towards the New World”.

It is not common for a musician to be top notch both in piano and organ. Yes, they are both keyboard instruments, but technically they are very, very different.  On Sunday afternoon, I went to the National Cathedral (part of its free Sunday organ concert series) because I wouldn’t want to miss a chance to hear Filsell play. I did look at the advertised program and saw that I had never heard of any of the composers of the pieces to be played; this gave me second thoughts about going.  And perhaps I should have listened to those second thoughts.

The program was developed as a part of a series of programs celebrating the Cathedral’s 100th anniversary, or some such thing.  Each of the composers was someone who had a connection with the Cathedral – perhaps a music director, or a teacher, or an organist.  Leo Sowerby, Richard Wayne Dirksen, Charles Callahan, Richard Roeckelein, Douglas Major, Calvin Hampton.  Know any of them?

The only composer at the concert was Roeckelein, which I believe still lives in the area.  He taught at St. Alban’s School, the Cathedral’s boys’ school.  After hearing the first three pieces, I was concerned that the entire program was going to be of third rate compositions, but I am happy to say that I enjoyed Rockelein’s Prelude, Elegy & Toccata.  It was the only piece I enjoyed.  The remaining pieces, I thought, ranged from “Let Me Outta Hear” to “Wake Me When It’s Over”.

They also did not seem overly challenging (of course, who am I to judge), and I got the feeling that this concert was a concert of obligation for Filsell (not begrudged, but none the less obligation), and not one of love.  Of course, I could be wrong. But because it was so much less inspiring that other concerts of Filsell’s that I have attended,  I found it notable.

Two More Interesting World War II Personal Stories (3 cents)

Odette Meyers has taught French literature at a number of California universities and colleges.  Not surprising, because she grew up in France, immigrating to the United States when she was a teenager, with her parents and younger sister.  She has published her story, “Doors to Madame Marie”, in 1997 (University of Washington Press).

Born in Paris to Jewish parents who had come to France to escape antisemitism in Poland, she grew up a somewhat precocious child in the City of Light, an impoverished but fulfilling childhood destroyed by the coming of the German Nazis.  Her father was drafted into the French Army and taken prisoner by the Germans.  For a long time it was not clear whether he was still alive.  To protect Odette, her mother had arranged that she was given false papers and sent to a country town where she was to be raised as a young Catholic French girl.  Her mother apparently also survived in Paris on false papers.

The story of Odette’s life as a young Catholic girl in a very provincial town, and her return to post-war Paris, reunited with her parents (secular, not religious Jews), but still at some level thinking of herself as Catholic.  The story of Paris and its treatment of its Jews before, during and after the war, as well as the tale of those who did not survive the war.  And the story of Odette’s relationship with Madame Marie, her childhood apartment building concierge.  All this makes fascinating reading, and gives the reader a different perspective of a young Jewish child during the 1940s in France.  Recommended.

An even different perspective comes from David E. Feldman’s “Pilgrimage from Darkness”, the story of Asher Eder, formerly Oskar Eder.  Eder, as a young man and a non-Jewish German raised in a small Bavarian town where Jews were non-existent, served in the German Army during World War II as a pilot and trainer, although somehow he didn’t see combat.  While the war was still going on, he met some members of the Polish resistance and, with a few other German officers, wound up supporting the underground.  He was never caught.  After peace came, he practiced law for a short while in Hamburg, but it wasn’t for him, and he began a lengthy spiritual quest, in Europe and for a long period of time in India.  One thing led to another and he found himself in Israel, a place he did not expect to visit, and he became surprisingly interested in things Jewish, changing his name from Oskar to Asher, studying and eventually converting.  When this book was written, he was acting as a tour guide in Israel (he still may be, although his years would be catching up with him).  The book was written by someone who took one of his tours, guessed that he wasn’t born Jewish, and, over tea, asked him his story.  Also recommended, the book was published by the University Press of Mississippi (why not?) in 2004.

“Long Goodbye” – a Book About the Right to Die, Highly Recommended ($1.53)

On January 11, 1983, 25 year old Nancy Cruzan was involved in a one car automobile accident on Krummel Nursery Road in Carthage, Missouri.  Still breathing but unresponsive, she was taken to a nearby hospital.  She remained alive, but unresponsive and in a coma and a persistent vegetative state, until the early morning of December 26, 1990, when she died.

Nancy Cruzan was very close to her parents, her sister and her nieces, all of whom wanted the best for her, and each of whom became convinced that her condition was not going to change for the better.  Although Nancy could breathe on her own and did not need a respirator, she could not eat on her own, even if fed by hand.  So a feeding tube was inserted to provide her with nutrition.  After much thought and discussion, her family decided that Nancy’s best interest lay in removing the feeding tube, and letter her die a natural death.  They were convinced that the death would be painless and that Nancy would die comfortably.  They were certain that this is what Nancy would have wanted.

The facility in which Nancy spent her final years did not agree.  While they acknowledged that medical care could be eliminated in a case like this, they concluded that nutrition was not medical care and that removing the feeding tube could be determined to have been the first step in her murder.  In addition to the potential criminal liability, hospital officials had moral or ethical objections to removing the feeding tube and it appeared that, even if a court determined that it was possible to disconnect Nancy from her food supply, they might not be willing to actually perform the act.  They would, in such a circumstance, however, not object to Nancy being transferred to another facility where the ethical conclusions were different.

William Colby, a young lawyer with a large Kansas City firm, was asked by his firm’s pro bono committee if he would be willing to represent the family and bring litigation to get permission for Nancy’s feeding tube to be disconnected.  He agreed, not knowing what he was getting himself into.  In 2002, Colby published his account of this tragic situation, “Long Goodbye: The Deaths of Nancy Cruzan”.  It is a fascinating book because of the underlying story and the many issues the story raises.  It is a book I highly recommend also because Colby’s writing is so readable, so clear, and so compelling, and he writes both with the dispassion of a lawyer, and the passion of someone who became very close to his clients.

This was a case without bad guys.  Everyone sympathized with the Cruzan family, even if their own personal ethical beliefs, or their interpretation of Missouri law, put them in opposition to the Cruzans in court.  There were a number of issues involved – the Missouri law, whether a feeding tube is a medical instrument, how can one determine the intent of someone who cannot express intent, what – if any – constitutional rights of privacy against state intrusions into medical decisions exist.  The state opposed the Cruzans in court.  At the trial court level (actually probate court), the Curzans won.  On appeal, they lost.  They applied for a writ of certiorari to the United States Supreme Court.  At the last minute, it was granted.  The Supreme Court heard the case.  On a 5-4 decision, they ruled against the Curzans, upholding the appellate court decision.

But the Supreme Court case contained a loophole.  The court determined that there was insufficient evidence presented that would require a court to conclude that Nancy Curzan would have wanted her nutrition halted in these circumstances.  If additional evidence ever turned up………..

And it did.  Two new witnesses appeared – women who had worked with Curzan years before and had spoken with her about her end of life medical care beliefs.  A new case was commenced in the state courts.  The state determined this time not to intervene.  The feeding tubes could be pulled and Nancy died, almost eight years after the accident.

The toll on her family was enormous.  They never recovered from the ordeal.  Her father, persistent in his attempts to do what was best for his daughter, persistent in the attention he paid to her and to her care, committed suicide six years after his daughter’s death.  His wife died of cancer a few years after that.  Her sister, after dealing with serious depression, apparently recovered – and devoted her time to running a foundation to help others deal with difficult end of life decisions.

There were, of course, other cases involving similar situations; Nancy Cruzan was not the only person to wind up in a persistent vegetative state.  What should be society’s role in these decisions?  What should be the role of the immediate family?  What is the line between stopping life-saving processes and murder?  These issues will come up again and again, particularly as medical care becomes technologically more advanced.  Opinions – all well intentioned – run from pro-life, to pro-personal autonomy.  The Living Will movement is meant to deal with this situation, as are the laws of all of the states (which of course differ from each other – why should this be?).

 

 

Today’s concert by Cha Park – a few notes (42 cents)

Today’s concert at Church of the Epiphany was a triumph in several ways.  Young Korean born, Washington resident Cha Young Park was cursed during her playing of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 17 by a couple of disruptive people in the back of the church.  They were part of a small group of mentally challenged individuals who were brought to the concert, but who could not help themselves from groaning and making other sounds as the music went on.  It is very generous to invite these people to attend, but when they can’t control their sounds, it becomes very disruptive to the artist and to the audience.  Mid-way through the piece (after further disruption by an irate older man yelling “get out right now.  you have no right to insult the pianist,as he bolted from his seat and went out the door) the group left the church and the concert continued.  This is the second time this has happened this year, and I think that this particular group should be discouraged from coming back. I am not sure why this has already not been done.

While Ms. Park did not appear to have let the disruption disrupt her playing, I am sure that, in subtle ways, it did.  Not the technical aspects, but the emotional ones.  Certainly, as an audience member, I was continually distracted.  Perhaps this is why I thought that something was lost from the obviously talented playing.  I don’t think it was because of anything the soloist did herself.

From the Beethoven, Ms. Park went to Chopin, selecting his Andante and Grande Polonaise Brillante.  Her playing of this was magnificent, from the softness of the opening portion to the brilliance of the latter half of the piece.  Could not imagine it being played better.

She then chose, as an encore, a Scriabin left hand doctrine.  She explained that she had been looking at the repertoire for left hand only, and discovered this particular piece that she described as beautiful.  She said she was still learning it, used the music, and apologized in advance for any missed notes (if there were any, they passed right by me).  Again, beautiful playing of a piece that I do not remember hearing previously and which, as she says, is an extremely appealing (and obviously challenging) work.

Ms. Park teaches at the Levine School.  Her descriptions of the three pieces she played were informative, as far as I could tell.  Without a microphone, her somewhat soft voice did not carry well, at least to where I was sitting.

I did not write about last week’s concert by the United States Army String Quarter.  They played Beethoven and Ravel, and again it was a wonderful concert.  I especially enjoyed the Ravel.

The Wisdom of the Ancients (3 cents)

A few years ago, I read Graham Hancock’s “Fingerprints of the Gods”, a very intriguing book which looked at the various myths that are pervasive across Latin America, based on the appearance in times far past, of a red headed white man from an unknown civilization.  Hancock talked about the similarities of the traditions of communities that existed at different times, in different places, with no contact with each other, thus concluding that there might actually have been some truth to the myths.  He went on and looked at certain other places in the world, particularly Egypt as I recall, and showed some similarities between the traditions in those places and the traditions he studied in Central and South America.  He then developed a most unusual premise – that being that there was at one time, before the last ice age, when a civilization existed on the continent now known as Antarctica, an advanced civilization the knowledge of which has been completely lost.  And that the visitors to Latin America, and Africa, came from this civilization, leaving behind on traces of their visits.

Well, this was very interesting to think about, and I am waiting for the time that enough ice melts at the South Pole to test Hancock’s theory.  The publication of “Fingerprints of the Gods” did not end Hancock’s study of the subject, and his further research and thoughts are set out in his “Heaven’s Mirror: Quest for the Lost Civilization”, which he published with his photographer-wife Santha Faila.  I must admit that I did not read this entire book, only the sections on Mexico and Central America, the on Egypt.  He goes on to look at Cambodia, the Pacific (Easter Island) and South America.  Looking at ancient buildings and structures, he finds again many similarities, including many common elements based on astronomical observations that are thought in common knowledge to have begun in Greek times, but which he believes were being observed thousands of years earlier.

Again, he posits the existence of an advanced earlier civilization, now lost.  It does not look like he is here suggesting that the civilization was Antarctic (he does refer readers to “Fingerprints of the Gods”), but he does believe that such a civilization existed, being wiped out about 10,000 years ago, before the time of any civilizations about which we have affirmative records.

Another book written by Hancock, “The Mars Mystery”, dealt with the placement of ancient temples and other buildings in reference to the positions of the stars (as those positions have changed throughout the centuries). “Heaven’s Mirror” builds on this as well as on “Fingerprints of the Gods”, and he pays a lot of attention to the placement of structures, and their sizing, in connection with very sophisticated celestial measurements.  Is it possible that this was the common basis of virtually all ancient religious sites?  Of course it is, but whether it is likely, I don’t know.  But this is a topic that tantalizes many, and not only in this context.  For example, I also recently ran through (its details make “reading it” too difficult) “The Secret Architecture of Our Nation’s Capital”, which claims that the street system of Washington DC, and many of its public buildings, were also designed to fit into astronomical, and astrological, patterns, in order to bring the world into balance and help bring about human fulfillment and success.  The book is filled with measurements, and calculations, and you can read it (as you can read Hancock) and conclude that the book’s conclusions are obvious.  But, on the other hand, the possibility that those involved in the design and construction of governmental Washington were both educated in and fixated on creating a city on this basis seems illogical.

So, there is a conclusion to be reached about all of this.  Unfortunately, we human being (and especially me) are not intelligent or knowledgeable enough to discover it.

 

Three Relevant Books: on Israel-Hamas, on Hostages of Islamists, and on the Disappointments of the Obama Years

Three books recently read (and their contemporary relevance):

1.  Benny Morris’ “1948”, published by Yale University Press in 2008 (relevance:  Israeli-Hamas War).  Benny Morris is an Israeli historian who teaches at Ben Gurion University of the Negev.  “1948” tells the story of the end of the British Palestine Mandate, the creation of the State of Israel, preparation for war, and the invasion of Israel by the armies of Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.  It is not an easy read.  It’s a long book (the version that I have runs 500 pages and each page is tightly packed), filled with more details than you probably need (or want) to know.  And it has been very controversial, largely because of its details, as it doesn’t shy away from blow by blow accounts of confrontations resulting in injury, death, and dispersion of presumably innocent residents of various villages and kibbutzim.  Morris was accused by some in Israel of exaggerating the less than friendly treatment of Arabs by Jewish forces during this crucial time period, and of therefore being anti-Zionist.  His response was that he is a Zionist, but that he is not trying to make moral judgements in his book, just to report the facts as an objective historian.  You have to respect him for that.

So what does the book show?  Some things are obvious – after the United Nations, which controlled the area through inheritance from the League of Nations and for whom Britain was acting as an agent mandatory power, voted for partition, the Jews accepted the partition, and the Arabs did not.  They claimed, as many continue to do today, that the Jews (now the Israelis) had no right to live in, or to govern, any of the land of Palestine, and that the Israeli state, from day 1, was illegitimate.  They did not hide the fact that there would be an invasion to destroy the young state.  Prior to the invasion, the Jews prepared for it, and what resulted was an effectual civil war.  During this period, the Israelis, using their new army (a combination of various military forces that had been created to act defensively during the mandate period) to try to eliminate what would become an Arab fifth column after the invasion.  This meant that, while some Arabs were left alone, other were forced to abandon their homes – these were largely those whose villages lay on what would be potential roads of ingress for Arab armies, or who could obstruct movement on important internal roads (for example, the road connecting Tel Aviv to Jerusalem).  While the Jews were well organized (and had started acquiring weaponry abroad – largely from Europe), the Palestinians were not well organized, and not well supported by the neighboring countries.

This meant that the young State of Israel was better prepared when the Arabs attacked.  As to the five separate (and not particularly well coordinated) invasions, the book details each invading army separately.  How the Israelis were able to protect West Jerusalem and the road to Tel Aviv, but not East Jerusalem or the Old City (and detailing what happened to the Jewish residents of the Old City, and their homes, business and synagogues.  How difficult the fighting was in the Negev with Egypt and how final determination of parts of the south awaited the armistice agreement at the end of the immediate conflict.  How fighting in the north (the Galilee) gave Israel more territory than it would have received by the partition itself.  And so on.

Throughout all of this, there were individual battles in both Israeli and Arab towns which left many dead and injured.  On both sides.  There were also significant numbers of Arabs who left the country – some because they were told to by Israeli forces, some because they were told to leave by Arab leaders, some because they were afraid and expected to be able to return after the conflict died down (and, in their thinking, after the Israelis were defeated).

It’s a sad story.  How different it would have been had the Arabs simply accepted Israel and the UN partition.

Morris does destroy a number of preconceived theories that many have.  First, the Israeli victory was not a miracle.  The Israeli army was well trained and well supplied; the Arab armies, although there were five of them, were very unprofessional – poorly trained and led, not coordinated, and not well supplied.  Second, the Israelis, while not maintaining a policy of clearing Palestinian Arabs from the land, had selectively determined that, primarily because of location, certain Arab towns had to be cleared and, in several cases, demolished, in order to provide for domestic security during and after the time of active war.  In some cases, he finds these actions to have been handled with a remarkable lack of empathy and finesse – people were killed, for example, who certainly did not need to be.  On the other hand, there were several attacks on Jewish settlements, which also led to the murder of many, including women and children.  It was war, after all.  But he does conclude that there were more Arab victims of these attacks than Jewish victims, one of his conclusions that did not sit well with many of his fellow countrymen.  But, as he says, facts are what they are.

For those for whom understanding of the context of the current problems in Israel and the Occupied Territories, “1984” is an important book (one of many, of course) to read.  But you can’t do it at one sitting.

2.  “A Rope and a Prayer” by David Rohde and Kristen Mulvilhill (relevance:  the beheading of James Foley).  David Rohde is an American journalist, a winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, who was kidnapped by the Taliban in Afghanistan in November 2008 and held for about 9 months.  Kristen Mulvihill is his wife.  After his escape in June, 2009, the two of them jointly wrote this book (sort of a diary), alternating chapters, showing the experience of a captive, and the experience of his wife working as hard as she could to procure his release.

Rohde was captured while on his way in Kabul to meet with a Taliban leader (he was writing a book), who it turned out had duped him.  He, his driver and his translator were all captured.  They were moved from place to place (they didn’t appear to have been physically hurt, although their living conditions were far from acceptable), they were threatened with execution from time to time, he was pressured to convert to Islam, and there were demands made for a large amount of money (starting at $15 million) and the release of Taliban prisoners held elsewhere.

It appears that the Taliban (or at least the guys who held Rohde) were less brutal than the ISIS leaders who were holding Foley.  But there was no way for Mulvihill to really know that.  There were communications from the captors (email and telephone), there were even a couple of videos and well controlled phone calls from Rohde to show he was still alive, there were threats of execution (first, they were to kill the driver, then the translator, then Rohde – none of this happened), and there were demands for excessive ransom. The American government was not involved in ransom discussions – this was done privately.  The family hired a consultant, the New York Times hired a consultant (of course, they were often at odds with each other).  The government did have the FBI involved, and presumably overseas intelligence agencies.

Rohde and the others were taken from Afghanistan (then a little calmer than today) and taken to the tribal territories of north west Pakistan, where no government had much in the way of control.  This was viewed to be a bad sign.  There was never an attempt by the American government to rescue him.  And everything was kept out of the press.

Finally, Rohde and his translator escaped.  Hard to believe, but they got a rope and used it to scale down a 10 foot wall, and then (obviously not dressed like an American) walked to a small Pakistani military base, where they were taken in and, quickly, flown out of the country.  Eventually, the driver was also released.

Well, this one ended well.  Are there lessons to be learned from this?  Not sure.  But probably – techniques of how to deal with those that capture you, what the possibilities for escape are, what might be going on at home while you are a prisoner abroad.  All these things might help someone in the future – however different the circumstances and individuals might be.

3.  Evan Thomas’ “A Long Time Coming” (relevance:  the disappointments of the Obama years).  Published in 2009, this is the Newsweek report on the Obama-McCain campaign (and on the Hillary Clinton-Obama primary fight).  It is a good retelling of what occurred during those important months, and it appears that the author (and John Meacham, who wrote a fascinating preface) were much more sympathetic to Obama than to McClain (who came across as moody, often distracted, impatient with campaign details, and totally off the wall when he selected Palin as his running mate, and decided to “suspend” his campaign due to the financial crisis).

Obama, on the other hand, came across as someone without a lot of experience, but as someone with great intelligence, extraordinary stability, very good work habits, and a determination not only to move the country ahead during difficult times, but to do it in a bipartisan manner.  Clearly, the Newsweek crew did not foresee the Republican “if he’s for it, we’re against it” attitude, nor Obama’s decision to concentrate on health care reform as the hallmark of his first administration above everything else.  They really seemed to believe that there would be “change”, all of which would be positive, and that race issues would recede, and bipartisanship carry the day.

How wrong they were.