Syzygy……Flugelloom (3 cents)

spellingbee.jpgTwo words from the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.  There were more.

And some great lines…..Do you know that if you took the w out of answer, the h out of ghost, the second a out of aardvark and the t out of listen, that you would get “what” and if you said it, no one would hear it?

And some great talent.

And it moves right along.

OK, so it’s not always politically correct, and it has humor that really isn’t met for some of the children who were in the audience, but as entertainment, it is a first class piece, and the touring cast that is playing at the National Theater is strong at every point.

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Two Restaurants, Two Books, a Play and Congratulations (3 cents)

Restaurant #1. Bistrot Lepic (upstairs in the wine bar). A very nice dinner on our anniversary. Heidsieck champagne was the highlight of Edie’s, and an extraordinary dish of scallops served on a bed of broccoli mousse with shaved ginger the highlight of mine.

Restaurant #2. Merkado. This time, it was three of us. Tilapia, chicken enchiladas and a seared tuna “salad espana”. Not elegant, but quite good. Waiter in training. Thought that serving a salad for two was appropriate, but that it would cost extra to divide it on two plates (as opposed to giving that task to the diners). Disappeared, and came back apologetic.

Book #1. Another one that has not been read in the last 50 years, There is No Truce by Rudolph W. Chamberlain. An unknown book by an unknown writer, and the biography of an unknown man, Thomas Mott Osborne. Published in 1935, Osborne was a progressive reformer politician, from a rather patrician family in Auburn, New York, who served as mayor of Auburn for several terms, had a number of chances to rise in the New York Democratic Party (thwarted by an uncontrollable urge to keep fighting Tammany Hall), member of the New York Public Service Commission regulating state utilities, proponent of summer camps in lieu of military reform schools for tough children, and eventual proponent of and practitioner of prison reform as warden of a penitentiary in Auburn and then Sing Sing. Correct thinking, if sometimes too uncompromising, he had his softer sides as well. Active in theatrical affairs from his school days, including his years at Harvard, he continued his theatricality, but in an atypical manner. He would disguise himself in various manner of strange (at least to him) dress, and go out on the town playing his roles to an unsuspecting public. Sometimes in the company of other masqueraders. Late to marry, he had several children in great rapidity, but his wife died very young, and he did not rewed. Probably gay, he certainly led a life style indicative of strange sexual interests (one of his masquerade buddies being a much younger sculptor who lived in his house, for example), but back in 1935 (he lived from 1858-1926), no one would dare suggest it.

Would I suggest you read this book? I wouldn’t go out of my way looking for it, I guess, but if given to you on a slow boat to China, you would not be wasting your time. An interesting guy who did interesting things. An insight into New York politics and society of 75 years ago. Well written, containing some memorable lines, none of which I remember.

Book #2. This one I recommend very highly. Equally unknown, I am sure, it is the memoir of Katherine Harris von Hogendorp, titled Survival in the Land of Dysentery. Harris (that is who she was then; it was pre-von Hogendorp days) was an extremely talented young woman from Baltimore, a pianist and singer who attended the Curtis Institute and had a promising career before her, when (during World War II) she, like so many others, put everything on hold, and became an American Red Cross Girl, stationed for almost two years at a secret American/British air base in the Indian jungle, where her job (and that of the two others with her) was to entertain the troops, serve them coffee, and make them as comfortable as possible. In the 1990s, living in Baltimore, she decided to take a course in creative writing. She discovered that people were interested in hearing about, and reading about, her two years, 1941-1943, helping the troops keep India out of the war, and regain lost territory in China. The book is only 150 pages long. It is a fascinating book. It shows how (fairly) ordinary people lived in an extraordinary time, how they coped under very difficulty conditions, and what they accomplished. And the concept of sacrifice (and I am not sure that they even thought about it in that manner) is so different from what you find today, when we are in another war, and so different from what it was like during Vietnam. For any number of reasons, this book should be read. I kid you not.

5. The play. We saw David Mamet’s “Speed the Plow” last night at Theater J. I am not a Mamet expert, and had only glanced at the mixed reviews. Here is what I think.

This is a short, 3 act play (about 90 minutes in all). The story involves a movie studio in Hollywood. Character 1 has been promoted to head of production. Character 2 has optioned a well known actor and script, but only for a very short time. Thus he needs Character 1’s approval very quickly (and Character 1’s approval then needs to be ratified at one higher level) . Character 3 is a temporary secretary, only working in the office for a few days.

The basic premise is that the script being brought by Character 2 has no socially redeeming qualities but would most likely make a handsome profit, and that Character 3 (who reads a silly book about redemption and the end of the world as we know it, and radiation as the stepping stone to further evolution, all as arranged by God) seduces Character 1 and convinces him that he should make a movie from that book, even though it might not make money, because it is socially redeeming.

What did I think? I thought that the dialog in the first act (fast paced, stylistic) was very clever. I thought that Character 3’s excitement about this downright nutty book was appealing and amusing (in a good way). I thought that the third act was an abomination. This climatic scene, where Character 1 has to make a choice between money or principles (hard to make this choice when the principles are so vacuous), and between old friend and sycophant, on the one hand, and presumably insincere young woman on the other, I thought pretty well destroyed the play which, until then, had some promise.

As to the production itself? I thought the play was well directed, and the set looked and worked well. I thought that each of the three actors almost had it, but that almost having it is not the same as really mastering the part. I thought this was too bad, because they did come close. That is, until the third act. At that point, as I don’t think anyone could master the third act, I really didn’t care any more.

6. Congratulations. Congrats go to cousin Randy for the release of Randy and the Radiant’s first CD. See http://www.bornagainhippies.blogspot.com.

Don Imus Returning. Will I or Won’t I? (13 cents)

imus1.jpgIt appears that Don Imus will be returning to his radio show on WABC in New York City. I assume he will be picked up by other stations, and that he will soon be back on the air here. Will I listen to him, or won’t I?

Now, I really liked Mel Gibson. But after his “Passion of the Christ”, I cannot bear to watch him. I am not sure he is even making new movies (I know his drawing power must have been affected), but I can’t even watch his old movies, the ones I like.

I also liked Imus (although I thought his show would have been better off without the ribald, sophomoric humor); he is simply very engaging. But I also thought he should have been fired. And he was. But the firing was apparently only a second degree burn and he is coming back.

Will I listen to his show?

Or won’t I?

Sweet “Suite Francaise” (2 cents)

nemirovsky.jpgWhen I picked up a copy of Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky, I did not have great expectations.  I thought it would be, more than anything else, an oddity.  A book written by a French-Jewish author while she was in hiding from the Nazis, hidden unread for years, and published over 60 years after her death at Auschwitz.  It would be interesting, but would it be good?

I thought it was great.

Nemirovsky wanted to write about France under occupation.  Her goal (unfulfilled) was a trilogy; she only wrote the first two portions (and probably would have altered them as she went along).

The first half of the book, entitled “Storm in June”, consists of a series of vignettes about residents of Paris who flee the city in the days before the arrival of the Nazis.  The second half, “Dolce”, concentrates on three families who live in a rural area of France under German occupation; there are references in their conversation  to some of the personalities in “Storm”, but these are fleeting.  The third portion of the book was to bring all of this together.

The book reads very smoothly; the personalities and their predicaments are ultimately interesting and credible.  I recommend it highly.

But let’s talk about Nemirovsky.  It turns out she really wasn’t French.  She was born in Russia to a wealthy banking family which escaped the Bolsheviks in 1919 and came to France.  Irene was 16.  She never became a French citizen.

She married another Russian emigree, Michael Epstein.  They had two daughters.  In 1939, the family converted to Catholicism (whether for political or spiritual reasons, I don’t know).  Her books (there were several best sellers before this book was written) are not about Jews.  OK, so she was Jewish according to the Nazis and killed at Auschwitz, but was she a Jewish writer?  This is obviously how she is being portrayed.

I don’t know the answer to that question.

In the back of the book, there are appendixes with excerpts from her notes on the book, and correspondence between family members and government officials after her arrest.  Her husband writes (before he was arrested and murdered): “And it seems to me both unjust and illogical that the Germans should imprison a woman who, despite of being of Jewish descent, has no sympathy whatsoever–all her books prove this–either for Judaism or the Bolshevik regime.”

Another strange point.  Apparently, Nemirovsky’s mother had her own problems.  She lived through the war years in Nice in some comfort, it is said, and after the war, Nemirovsky’s two young daughters, who had been hidden, went to their grandmother.  According to the preface of the French edition of the book, “Fanny [the grandmother] had spent the war years in Nice, living in great comfort, but when the children rang the doorbell, she refused to let them in, shouting through the closed door that if their parents were dead, they should go to an orphanage…”

The manuscript to Suite Francaise was kept by her oldest daughter Denise for over 50 years in an unopened trunk with other papers of her mother (how they were preserved, I do not know).  She decided about ten years ago to donate them to a French institution and, before they were handed over,  Denise decided to see what she had.  This decision led to the publication of the book.

All of this is quite odd.  The book is terrific.

To Keep You Up to Date

1.  The poor Washington Caps.  We saw them beat Tampa Bay 5-3 Wednesday, so hope was replenished.  But last night and the night before, they lost to Vancouver and St. Louis.  They have now lost five of their last six.  It doesn’t look good, does it?

2.  Caligula.  We saw Hannah’s friend Alexander Strain play the title role in Albert Camus’ “Caligula”.  He was as good as the reviews made him out to be.  But it is too bad that Camus’ play was not worthy of his effort.  To be fair to Camus (why?), perhaps there was a translation problem, perhaps it was meant for a larger cast, perhaps the play or edited or cut down.  Or, it might have been a problem with the direction, and certainly there was a gap between the performance of Alex and the performances of the remaining 10 or so cast members.  I can imagine the play being done differently and more engagingly, but this performance I thought was pretty flat overall.

3.  Our friends Frank and Ahuva.  How is it that they know everyone?  Whomever you mention, they say either “their friends of ours”, or “we have known them a long time”.  You can somehow understand how they might know members of the local Jewish community, but it goes beyond that.  Famous musicians, they know them all.  The rabbi of the National Synagogue, of course.  We visit a real estate development on the western shore of Oahu, and they have a timeshare there.  A friend buys a house in Chestertown, MD and joins the local Jewish community there, and they know everyone in that community.  They take a trip of the trans-Siberian railroad, and the guide suggests that everyone is no more than three persons from everyone else – and says “let’s see how close you are to Joseph Stalin”; they knew someone who translated for Stalin.  How can this be?

4.  Dinner last night at The Heights.  The Heights is a pretty close clone of Logan Tavern.  We went with our friends, Art and Carol from LA, and their daughter Julia, who works here for Greenpeace.  I had sliced crusted ahi tuna, and Edie had tilapia.  The food is excellent. The restaurant is located in one of the new buildings at 14th and Park, an area that is in the throes of such major changes.  We did not know how crowded it would be, and thought it would be struggling for a few years.  If last night was an example, customers are not going to be a problem; it was pretty much filled.

No Blacks, No Children, and (Probably) No Jews (3 cents)

These are some of my reactions to the Edward Hopper show at the National Gallery.   This is not necessarily a criticism, just a comment.  Of course, many of Hopper’s highly stylized, and extraordinarily appealing, paintings have no people in them whatsoever.  Just cityscapes, or seascapes, or images of rural New England.  As to the people who occasionally appear, citing at a bar, at an automat table, looking out of a window, or being viewed through a window, whether they are male or female, all seem to be in fact identical to each other.  Of course, some have dark hair, some light, and there may be some other surface differences, but that doesn’t seem to matter.  These aren’t really people; they are archetypes, inner-people, perhaps covered by an outer person who does not show up in the painting.  And who knows, these outer persons might be black, or youthful, or even Jewish.  Well, Reform Jewish.

There is something else about this show.  Every single piece (oil, watercolor and etching) is a masterpiece, and memorable.

And, oh yes, one other reaction.  Hopper only painted in the summer.  What did he do the rest of the year?

The Plot of the Plot’s Not Hot

I have read about one third of Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, and I am not sure that I am going to finish it. It is very easy reading (we all know that Roth can write), and the story line is so far quite meager. The gimmick of the book (and this is one of my questions: is a book good because it has a gimmick?) is that it purports to be autobiographical, I think, but to take place in a time that never existed, during the period in which Charles A. Lindbergh became president of the United States and forged an alliance with Hitler’s Germany.

When I read Roth’s Goodbye Columbus, a short novel and collection of stories, at least 40 years ago, I thought I had discovered a master. His coming of age story in Newark (later a movie that was a mere shadow of the novella), his character Levine (I think, Levine, but 40 years is a long time), the secular Jew who was concerned that the Chasids were moving into the neighborhood and who then woke up one day to find that he himself had turned into one. All were masterful.

I have only very occasionally picked up a Roth book since then, and must admit that I don’t think that I ever finished any of them. I won’t blame the author for that; I will take responsibility. But in regard to the current book, I take no responsibility and push the blame back on Roth.

OK, I admit that alternative history may not be my thing. There have been many books written, for example, on the supposition that the South won the Civil War. Sorry, not interested. Sinclair Lewis wrote So It Can’t Happen Here, which I recall was another fascist-in-America book that I long ago started but dropped. (In the cinema, however, my tastes must be otherwise, because the alternative reality in ” Back to the Future II” I found mesmerizing.) So, even as a gimmick, the premise of Plot is a little stale.

I also don’t think it fair to Lindberg (OK, here I sound like a character in the book), whose anti-Semitism was not the most pervasive of his characteristics, who was an extraordinarily talented individual in all sorts of ways and who, as the relatively private person described in Scott Berg’s prize winning autobiography, would have shied away from the presidency in any event. I see that there are extensive notes in the back of Roth’s book to explain to the reader how much of this fictional account was historical, and how much not, and I am at least going to read that section. I do not know who wrote it, or what the circumstances were.

As to alternative histories of the World War II period, I frankly don’t see much of a challenge in conjuring up what might have happened if an anti-Semitic, anti-war party took control in the USA. I have always been interested in the opposite. What if there had been no Hitler, and the Weimar Republic had not gone out of existence in the early 1930s? What would then the course of European (and American and Middle East) history have been throughout the remainder of the century?

And, even more intriguing (by far), what if Hitler had succeeded in gaining power in Germany, but had not been anti-Jewish? There is no reason why a fascist regime has to be anti-Semitic, and exclude the Jews from its nationalist policies. Certainly, Mussolini did nothing to the Jewish community in Italy until forced to do so by Hitler, and there were many very prominent fascist Jews in Italy. And Franco, another fascist dictator, although he did not have a Jewish community to deal with, went out of his way to avoid anti-Semitism in his official policies, and even gave protection to Sephardic Jews (wherever they resided) escaping Hitler. The exploration of this topic would, to me, be both fascinating and challenging.

By the way, I hope that they don’t make a movie of The Plot Against America.

Asleep at the Switch

Today’s Drudgereport has two headlines:

1. “Stress mess in U.S.; 48% of us can’t sleep”

2.  “Drowsy V.P. Cheney nods off at meeting on California wildfires”

I take this to mean that Cheney knows something that at least 48% of us don’t know, and, because he appears to be the guy at the switch, that it is good.

Good salads, bad fish, no coffee and loud music (2 cents)

I was concerned that we were going to be the oldest at the Teapacks concert last night by far.  We may have been the oldest, but clearly not by far.  In fact, the audience although not extremely large, ranged from toddlers to us.  I would guess that the median age was probably mid to late 30s.  Our table neighbor suggested that the Teapacks were very popular in Israel 10 – 15 years ago, and that a lot of the audience were their fans then.

I don’t understand why the music needs to be so loud.  When playing the same music on a CD, no one would reach this decibel level.  The problem is that it drowns out much of the subtlety of the music, and certainly makes the words (irrespective of language) hard to understand.  In fact, Kobi Oz, the Teapacks lead, announced that one song would be in Gibberish, “so it doesn’t make any difference if you don’t know the language”.  It might of been Gibberish, but it could just as easily been the English or the Hebrew.

The words, which Oz writes, are very clever (of course, I take that on faith, since there is so much I couldn’t follow).  And much but not all of it expresses strong social positions.  In addition to “He’s Gonna Push the Button” (see the Youtube clip below several posts), there is a song trying to determine what is more important, peace or food.  The song is “Salaam, Salami”.  There is another song about the capitalists taking over the world, with a great line that reads something like “Go ahead and sue us, our lawyers work like snails”.  And there is a pounding song that attacks the audience directly:  “You’re so dumb, you’re stupid, stupid, stupid, and all we do is make money off of you.”  The audience loves it.

There was quite a bit of dancing.  Or maybe not.  Because the dancing seems to be bouncing.  You stand in front of the band, you do whatever you want with your hands (you can just let them hang, you can wave them back and forth, you can do anything) and you bounce like you are on a pogo stick.  You can do it with a partner, with your friends, by yourself.  You don’t even need to know if you are dancing with anyone.  Perhaps this is the way it is at all rock concerts now?

The members of the six man band (guitars of various types, drums and a keyboard/accordianist) look like you would expect them to, more or less.  Tall, thin, motley dressed, never been to a hair salon.  But Kobi Oz, who is the lead, and who sings ALL of the songs (it was a 90 minute set) is a small bundle of energy.  Small = maybe 5’2″  Bundle = compact, non- angular  Energy = rapid, kinetic, frantic, uncontrolled, awkward, graceful movement, without even a hint of slowing down.

The venue (State Theatre in Falls Church, right on Route 29) is quite nice.  I was told that they often have up to 700 people for a concert and, for the reggae and a few other concerts, they remove the tables and can fit in 1000.  (I assume that none of them is the fire marshal.)  They have a rather complete menu and friendly servers (“No, no, you’re not the oldest person we’ve ever had here, are you kidding?”), and the ceasar salad and the guacamole were first class, but watch out for the frozen, one-size-fits all salmon, which was dry and tough and not possible to really eat.  And their coffee brewer was broken, or so they said.

I’d go back to the State Theater, but would be a fish out of water at most events, so probably won’t.  But some upcoming programs seem interesting.  Anyone want to go with me to see Girl in a Coma?