Friday, May 13, 2016

Waiting for Augusta, by Jessica Lawson



We have been looking at children’s books this week here at The Jade Sphinx, and easily the funniest of the bunch is Waiting for Augusta, by Jessica Lawson.  It is written with considerable dash and brio, and has genuinely laugh-out-loud passages every few pages.  If you are looking for a lark for your young reader (or for yourself), you can’t go wrong with this book.

Our main protagonist is 11-year-old Benjamin Putter, who has a lump in his throat that he is convinced is a golf ball.  His mother – who runs the remnants of a once thriving pork restaurant in rural Alabama – takes the boy to various doctors who all fail to diagnose the real problem.  Even Ben thinks he may be cracking up … if only he didn’t think the whole thing made so much sense in a strange kind of way.  Ben’s recently deceased father was a huge golf fan, and much of their time together was spent with his dad talking about the game, the greens and the pros.

But … all is not lost.  Ben hears his late-father speaking to him from the urn holding his cremated ashes, telling him that these ashes need to be scattered at Augusta National gold course, the Valhalla of golf champs.  Ben, an amateur painter and gentle soul, runs away from home with his late father in search of the perfect resting spot for the old man.  Things get even more confusing when it seems that other inanimate objects have no hesitation to give Ben helpful advice, leading to many comic interactions.

On the way, he takes up with another runaway, Noni, a take-charge young girl with a gift for giving orders, hatching schemes, and making trouble.  Together, Ben and Noni make it from Hilltop, Alabama to Augusta, with a great deal of fun and hijinks during the trip.  Zany passages include an inebriated guard chicken (much better than a guard dog), passing Ben off as a hapless mute to get sympathy, and navigating the ‘big city’ of Augusta through disguise and improvisation.  The book, though, is no simple romp.  It has a surprise ending that brought this reviewer up for a shock, and is promised to resonate with readers for some time to come.

The great joy of Waiting for Augusta is the interplay between Ben and Noni.  Though only children, they are soon bickering like Lucy and Ricky; unlike sitcom couples, however, Ben learns something from Noni’s talent for schemes, her ability to play tricks and her skill at bending the rules.  In looking to find peace for his father, Ben ultimately finds himself.

Be sure that while the ultimate purpose of Lawson’s book is quite serious, she never flags in her comic invention and deft gift for dialog.  She also has a keen ear for regional prejudices, and the book, set in the South in 1972, is rich in historical details that are interesting and informative to young and old alike.

Jessica Lawson is the author of The Actual & Truthful Adventures of Becky Thatcher, and Nooks & Crannies, a Junior Library Guild Selection.  Waiting for Augusta is a terrific book, and we hope to see more from Lawson in the future.


Thursday, May 12, 2016

Somewhere Among, by Annie Donwerth-Chikamatsu


Proving that children’s literature is endlessly fertile, rich and protean, we find Somewhere Among, a unique, resonant and disturbing book-length poem by Annie Donwerth-Chikamatsu.  A novel of subtle grace and undefinable beauty, Somewhere Among is unlike anything you have read before, and will haunt you for some time to come.

Somewhere Among tells the story of 11-year-old Ema, who lives in Japan with her American mother and Japanese father.  When Ema’s mother has a difficult pregnancy, she and Ema are housed with her father’s parents: Jiichan, her happy-go-lucky grandfather, and Obaachan, her cold and overbearing grandmother.

The story takes place over the course of the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States, and the anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  Everywhere, Ema seems to encounter bullying – she and her mother are bullied by Obaachan; Obaachan bullies Jiichan; Ema is bullied by a school punk named Masa, who is, in turn, bullied by his own mother.  Even Ema’s father is bullied by his bosses at work.  At times, it seems that the whole world is an unending spectacle of bad behavior.

Donwerth-Chikamatsu uses the microcosm to explore the macrocosm – how can the world be at peace, she wonders, when its people can’t be at peace with themselves?  So much of the bad behavior that Ema sees every day is motivated by other bad behavior, creating a cycle that makes the world increasingly intolerant, hostile and disengaged.  Annie Donwerth-Chikamatsu is saying that this cycle of abuse has ramifications both personally and internationally, and that it cannot and will not be broken until we strive to be better, do better and live more consciously.  It is a bold and daring gambit to mirror historical events like Pearl Harbor Day and Sept. 11th with more mundane, personal hardships, but the case Donwerth-Chikamatsu argues is a persuasive one.

Ema sees the chance for renewal and second chances in her soon-to-arrive baby sister.  Few events are more positive and optimistic than newborn babies, and the arrival of the baby helps mend the rifts within Ema’s family, just as the cycle of life can help renew our faith in our fellowman.

It is a daring choice for Donwerth-Chikamatsu to write her book in free-verse poems.  At first, the reader is convinced that this may be little more than an authorial trick; once into the story, however, the reader realizes it would be near-impossible to tell any other way.  The spare language of free-verse poetry connects directly with the deep and powerful emotional current that runs through the book.  At times wistful and full of hurt, her language also has the simple power of either a lament or a prayer.  Her versifying compounds the mighty emotional effect of the story, and its last few lines will linger with you long after you close the book.


Annie Donwerth-Chikamatsu lives in Tokyo, Japan, and this is her first novel.  Her previously work has appeared in Hunger Mountain, Highlights, Y.A.R.N., and other magazines.  Somewhere Among is a dazzling achievement, and we can expect great things from her.  Highly recommended.



Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Ollie’s Odyssey by William Joyce



Many artists reach a plateau and stay there, revisiting the same themes or visions, never expanding, never stretching, never evolving with their work.  And then there are those lucky few artists – which includes writers, graphic artists, musicians and performers – who continually grow, develop and stretch their capabilities.

Into that happy few we must count author, illustrator, animator William Joyce (born 1957).  After creating some of the most beautiful picture books of the 1990s, Joyce then branched off into his other love, filmmaking, and helped design a number of memorable films (including Toy Story), before branching out into production himself.  He also started the company Moonbot to make apps, games, animated shorts – anything, in fact, to which he could harness his storytelling genius.  Located in Louisiana, Moonbot is a human-scale Disney, where talented artists, writers and filmmakers create the next generation of children’s classics.

His first love, though, remains books.  He started a series of picture books and prose novels that detailed the origins of such childhood myths as Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny called The Guardians of Childhood, and he has now served up a new original novel with illustrations, Ollie’s Odyssey.  It is his most daring and interesting prose novel to date, and a significant demonstration of his ever-increasing capabilities.

Ollie’s Odyssey is all about a kid named Billy and his special relationship with his toy, a ragdoll his mother made named Ollie.  During a wedding party, Ollie is kidnapped by the minions of an evil toy, the demented clown Zozo.  Billy must sneak out of his home at night and trace his lost friend, a journey that leads him to a deserted underground carnival, to a confrontation with a horde of menacing reconfigured toys, and to a final battle royale led by Ollie and some odds and ends who form a junk army.

In outline, it would seem as if Ollie’s Odyssey would be just another kid’s adventure story.  But Joyce uses this framework to write a deeply moving tale about growing up, the inevitability of change, loss and, perhaps most important, the power of memory.  Rather than a stock villain, Zozo has become twisted through the loss of his beloved ballet dancer-doll.  He is a tragic-villain, fully formed and compelling enough for the most adult fiction.  Similarly, Billy and Ollie fear changes to their friendship as Billy ages, and Ollie wonders what becomes of toys that are no longer loved.  The coming end for their partnership does not mitigate in any way the love they have for one another, but it does add a tragic dimension unusual for kiddie fare.  Joyce also talks about resurrection and rebirth during the junkyard sequence, where now useless bric-a-brac takes on new life and new identity to help Ollie and save Billy.  It is a stunning juggling act: Joyce has written a profoundly moving and emotionally resonant novel in the guise of a children’s book.

Just as Joyce has previously illustrated his picture books with dazzling watercolor work, and then branched out into both line drawings and computer illustration, Ollie’s Odyssey tests his versatility with a series of charcoal drawings – a medium he has not used in his published work before.  The illustrations of Ollie’s Odyssey are unlike those of any of Joyce’s previous work, and fit the overall emotional tenor of the story beautifully.  Charcoal brings a gritty, tactile sense to this tale of fuzzy friends and frayed castoffs that would be missing from glossier modes of illustration.  He also used the paper upon which he drew to great effect, allowing what would normally be the white ‘tooth’ of the paper to soak up computer-added color.  The book is also beautifully designed by Joyce with chapter heads in bold red crayon, and different colored papers representative of different characters and scenes. 


As with much of Joyce’s oeuvre, his latest book can be savored by adults as well as children. A man who loves popular art immoderately (and wears that love on his sleeve), Joyce peppers Ollie’s Odyssey with echoes of titans and works that come before.   Attuned readers will catch bits of filmmakers Todd Browning and Lon Chaney, hints of the classic Universal Monsters with a touch of The Island of Lost Souls, a healthy smattering of Ray Bradbury, and shout-outs to everything from the original King Kong to Batman Returns to The Magnificent Seven.  Indeed, the final image of the book is a direct rift on John Ford’s mighty ending for The Searchers … and one wonders if Joyce is writing for adults who have kept their inner child alive and well, or if he writes for children who will one day make more adult connections.

Ollie’s Odyssey is a bigger, grander, more ambitious book than anything that Joyce has attempted before, and he rises to the occasion splendidly.  It is certainly the finest of his prose novels, and one cannot but wonder what this protean talent has in store for us in future years.

While we are delighted that Joyce has spread his abilities into so many different areas, it is perhaps in books that devotees get the fullest distillation of his talents.  His written and illustrated works are the least collaborative of his output, and capture his philosophy best.  That view of life has been changing and evolving over time – that William Joyce names his protagonist Billy is surely no accident – and if the man himself can emerge from the crucible of experience with his sense of wonder intact, what is he not capable of?  And what, he asks, are any of us not capable of?  It’s that sense of possibility, that childlike sense of limitless adventure, that the world is filled with things to delight each and every one of us, that is the essence of Bill Joyce.


Ollie’s Odyssey is highly recommended to kids, old people, and everyone in between.


Friday, April 15, 2016

Arthur Anderson (1922-2016)


Though I couldn’t call the late Arthur Anderson a friend, we certainly knew and liked one-another.  I had been meeting him on-and-off since the early 1980s, when I was on the board that organized a yearly seminar on vintage radio, The Friends of Old Time Radio convention (FOTR). 

FOTR, run from its inception till its end just a few years ago (in 2009) by Jay Hickerson, was unlike other conventions.  The three-day event would have multiple recreations of vintage radio shows starring the very people who starred in them during the 30s, 40s and 50s, and the event was small enough to create a feeling of family among regular attendees.  I was in college when I went to my first FOTR convention, and well into my 40s for my last.  If that doesn’t say something about Hickerson, vintage radio fans, and the event, then nothing does.

The most important names in radio drama attended FOTR at one time or another, and several were regulars every year.  Anderson was in that latter category, and I actually had the pleasure of appearing with him in several radio recreations.  (One of the great joys of FOTR was that fans and attendees were often part of the recreations; better still, there was a dinner event two nights of the three, and often you were seated next to the likes of Jackson Beck or Burgess Meredith.  How cool was that?)

Anderson was a fixture on Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater (1938 – where you can hear Anderson in Treasure Island and Life With Father), and a regular on the classic children’s program, Let’s Pretend (1928-1954).  His story – in a highly fictionalized form – is told in the film Me and Orson Welles (2009), where the handsome Zac Efron played young Anderson.  (Anderson was actually much younger than Efron in the film, which allowed filmmakers to incorporate romance into the story.)

Anderson can be seen in the Woody Allen film  Zelig (1983), and in John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy (1969) and on television in Car 54 Where Are You, as well as the more sober Law and Order.  And he worked till the end, doing voices for commercials (his is the voice of the Lucky Charms leprechaun from 1963 till 1992), cartoons and the like, and being the best spokesman vintage radio could ever have.  As Anderson said: I never got the girl, not in 19 seasons. I was never starred, I was never featured. But I always worked.

Anderson was unfailingly friendly and one of that rare vanishing breed: the jobbing New York actor.  He and his late wife, Alice, were always a pleasure to see and both always had terrific stories to tell.  He was really the last of the great voices from the classic era of radio drama, and we won’t see his like again.  He will be missed.


Thursday, April 14, 2016

My Stroke of Insight, by Jill Bolte Taylor, Ph.D. (2006)



It’s not often that we review nonfiction unrelated to the arts here at The Jade Sphinx, but we have just finished a fascinating book by brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor, called My Stroke of Insight.  In it, she chronicles the onset, affects and long term recovery of a devastating stroke she suffered at age 37, and it is an alternately harrowing and fascinating tale indeed.

Bolte was a respected brain researcher, a board member of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and a member of the Harvard Medical School Department of Psychiatry.  Her younger brother suffered from schizophrenia, and Bolte was interested not just in mental illness, but the physiological reasons for it – in short, she was deeply invested in the mechanical and chemical workings of our brains.

So when she suffered an asteriovenous malformation (AVM), a rare form of hemorrhagic stroke, it was from the privileged space of being an expert on the inside looking out.  However, that privilege was not something she could communicate to her peers – shortly after her stroke, Bolte could not speak, read, and process her impressions.  Her brain was a prisoner within her own body, and it would take eight long years before she would recover completely.

My Stroke of Insight is harrowing in its depiction of the onset of stroke and its affects on cognitive function and simple quality of life.  Perhaps nothing could be more terrifying than lying helpless and conscious while various loved ones and professionals calmly decided her fate.

It is fascinating because the damage done to Taylor’s mind was mostly on the left hemisphere, the portion of the brain that reasons, deduces, makes connections and is rational.  This freed her right hemisphere without reservations; it unleashed the portion of her mind that was intuitive, creative, free and receptive to the world without filters of reason.  In the absence of the normal functioning of her left orientation, the perception of her physical boundaries were no longer limited to her left-filtered impressions.  She felt like a genie escaping from its bottle and swam on a sea of euphoria.

As Bolte puts it:  My entire self-concept shifted as I no longer perceived myself as a single, a solid, an entity with boundaries that separated me from the entities around me.  I understood that at the most elementary level, I am a fluid.  Of course I am a fluid!  Everything around us, about us, among us, within us, and between us is made up of atoms and molecules vibrating in space.  Although the ego center of our language center prefers defining our self as individual and solid, most of us are aware that we are made up of trillions of cells, gallons of water, and ultimately everything about us exists in a constant and dynamic state of activity.  My left hemisphere had been trained to perceive myself as a solid, separate from others.  Now, released from that restrictive circuitry, my right hemisphere relished in its attachment to the eternal flow.  I was no longer isolated and alone.  My soul was as big as the universe and frolicked with glee in a boundless sea.

Now, before we dismiss this as so much New Age hoo-haw brought on by brain damage, let’s consider what happened here.  If the left hemisphere of the brain is a filter through which our reason, capacity to measure and ability to make connections is the part of our brain that makes sense of reality, then the right hemisphere is the part of our brains that receives reality without the blinders of cognition.  In short, perhaps what Bolte saw was indeed the world as it really is, without the blinders of our own reason getting in the way.

Another way of thinking about it is that Bolte was given the insight that the human psyche and consciousness are a very subtle type of force that interacts with the brain, but are not necessarily produced by the brain.  That we are, indeed, entities that exist without of very human bodies.  An interesting thought, that.


My Stroke of Insight is an extremely rewarding book.  If nothing else, it is a warning to take care of our health to avoid stroke, and also an invaluable guide in helping loved ones recover from stroke.  But, most important, it is a fascinating look at what might be that realm where existence within the brain ends, and something not quite yet known resides.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

William Joyce Wants Your Toys!


We have frequently looked at the work of illustrator/film-maker William Joyce (born 1957) in these pages.  He is one of the most gifted creators in the field of children’s entertainment today; his books have won numerous awards, one of his animated films has won an Oscar, he created his own wonderland-cum-story-telling-factory Moonbot, and most important, he was won a place in the hearts of everyone who takes expertly crafted, intelligent family entertainment seriously.  Joyce has shared his peculiar magic with the world, and now he wants something in return … your toys.

Recently, Joyce has been thinking about toys while preparing his upcoming book, Ollie’s Odyssey (soon to be reviewed in these pages).  In particular, he has been thinking about Big Teddy, a huge stuffed bear owned by his late daughter, Mary Katherine, as well as his own bear who became lost when we has around six years old.  What happened, he wondered, when beloved toys became separated from the people who loved them?

Right now, Joyce is collecting stories of beloved toys and their people on his Twitter account.  Tweet him at @heybilljoyce with a photo or drawing of your most beloved toy.  Every week, Joyce will pick one to illustrate and post, and then he will mail the drawing to you!


This is a wonderful opportunity to share an important part of our childhood with a man who has done so much for children’s literature, and who has brought a significant amount of wonder into the lives of children and adults.  Make your day a little happier and check out Bill Joyce on Twitter.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Maybe a Fox, by Kathi Appelt and Alison McGhee (2016)


It’s understandable that so many have soured on adult fiction and are finding greater rewards in Young Adult novels.  It seems that contemporary adult novelists devote themselves to a minimalist approach, stripping life of its mystery, its romance and its quality of transcendence.  This reductive quality in contemporary fiction – shorn of story, shorn of suspense, shorn of purpose – is perhaps the greatest threat to contemporary engagement with reading.

Many novels targeted towards Young Adults, however, have evaded this post modern rot.  This is largely because the fodder of so much bad contemporary fiction – failed relationships, unsatisfying sex, career depression – still lie ahead for many young adult readers.  Also, Young Adult novels drive in an engine powered by plot; and plot is something much contemporary fiction ignores.

There is also a quality of fearlessness in Young Adult fiction that contemporary adult fiction lacks.  It can take risks, go for the big effect, approach realms of magical realism.  And certainly few new Young Adult novels go for the big effect more ambitiously than Maybe a Fox, by Kathi Appelt and Alison McGhee.

Maybe a Fox is about two sisters, Sylvie and Jules.  Both girls live with their widowed father in rural Vermont.  When Sylvie, a runner, disappears and is presumed dead, Jules must cope with her feelings of loss and guilt.  She must also try to find a greater, more deep understanding of her sister, their relationship, and reconcile them to memories of their late mother.

Also going on, her friend Sam is dealing with the return of his brother, Elk, who is back from active service in Afghanistan and dealing with the loss of his own dear friend, Zeke. 

The novel shifts from its realist roots with sequences involving Senna, a new-born fox who feels a strange affinity for Jules.  Is this, in some way, the returning spirit of Sylvie, or something more mundane?

Appelt and McGhee are to be given kudos for their remarkable evocation of grief.  For readers (young or old) who have had to deal with loss and its resultant pain, the taste of this peculiar agony is palpable on the page.  Here is a good sample, where Jules realizes that her life can be divided into her earlier life, and “after Sylvie:”

After Sylvie, Dad laced and then untied, then relaced his boots, and then sat there staring at them as if he didn’t know whether to relace them once more.

After Sylvie, Jules caught Dad more than once pouring two glasses of milk, then pouring the second one back in the carton.  Her dad didn’t drink milk.

After Sylvie, Jules poured the rest of Sylvie’s coconut shampoo down the drain of the shower.  Even though there was no trace of the shampoo, Sylvie’s signature scent lingered in the bathroom, clung to the shower curtain, hung there in the steamy air.  Jules used her dad’s Old Spice shampoo when she took a shower.  It didn’t smell like coconut.

After Sylvie, Jules stood in the kitchen and watched Dad stir a pot of spaghetti sauce.  It was the first time since … It was the first time they were eating something besides Mrs. Harless’s soups.  She was sick of Mrs. Harless’s soup, even though she knew that Mrs. Harless was just trying to be nice to them.

The sauce bubbled, thick and spicy.  Jules made a salad and her dad dished up the spaghetti and they sat down and ate it at the table where Jules had set down three plates before she remembered.

Again.

Every day she forgot and then every day she remembered.

And that’s how it was After Sylvie.

Forget.

Remember.

Forget.

Remember.

Forget.

Remember.

Remember.

Remember.

After Sylvie.

That plaintive style reminiscent of incantation is extremely powerful and the book has many strong passages like this.  There are also several surprisingly clumsy passages, as if the co-writers were unsure of the dominant authorial voice.  Because of this, Maybe a Fox gets off to a slow and unsure start; but readers are encouraged to stay with it for the greater rewards.

The supernatural or preternatural aspects of the book will move you or not, according to taste.  It is a bold gambit on behalf of Appelt and McGhee because it mitigates, to some degree, the pain at the loss of Sylvie.  The pain of the void is great material for a novelist; for novelists to fill that void is courageous, but not always successful.  However, Appelt and McGhee do a wonderful job with their central story conceit, and it’s impossible to read Maybe a Fox and remain unmoved.


Maybe a Fox comes highly recommended to readers young and old alike.  It is deeply affecting, emotionally demanding and eminently rewarding.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Olivier, by Philip Ziegler (2013)



Of the three, great theatrical knights of the 20th Century, Laurence Olivier (1907-1989) always came in third with Your Correspondent, trailing far behind both John Gielgud (1904-2000) and Ralph Richardson (1902-1983).  Olivier was indeed a great actor, but he lacked, to us, the poetry of Gielgud or the twinkle of Richardson.

However, it becomes clear in reading this champion biography by Philip Ziegler (born 1929) that of the three, Olivier was the most ambitious, the most tenacious and the most daring.  For Olivier, becoming a great actor was less a feat of artistry than an act of great will and determination.  Throughout his life, Olivier would seemingly set higher and more complex challenges for himself, stretching his powers as a performer, as an advocate for the theater, and as a man.  He sometimes fell far from his mark (most notably as a man), but as a record of passion, energy and drive, Olivier is hard to beat.

Olivier did not initially consider being an actor, but when his clergyman father (a distant, rather brutal figure) told him that he would be on the stage (“of course”), young Laurence took to it with alacrity.  He was fortunate in his early roles and in mentors … while still a young man, he was playing classical parts like Romero and Mercutio, while also finding offers to star in mainstream movies.  With successes in both Wuthering Heights (1939) and Rebecca (1940), it would have been easy for Oliver to take the easy route and become a movie star; instead, he stuck to his loftier ambition to become the premier classical stage actor of his day.

However, his success in film (something denied Gielgud and Richardson in their early years) also provided Olivier with insight enough to know that cinema was an important medium.  While he claimed that he didn’t fully understand ‘movie acting’ until rather late in the game, he was wise enough to make large-scale movie adaptations of several Shakespeare plays that provide us some clue as to his in-person dynamism.  His film versions of Hamlet, Henry V and Richard III – both as director and star -- are not only good Shakespeare, they are good movie-making.

But this complete man of the theater was unsatisfied with performing and filmmaking; he also wanted to be the man who created a National Theater of Britain.  It was a project to which Olivier would dedicate more than a decade of his life and his not inconsiderable energies.  As star actor, occasional director, business manager, spokesman and man-of-all work, Olivier faced the Herculean task of building a national theater that showcased both the classics and contemporary plays.  It was not for the faint of heart.

In a book with more than its share of delicious gossip and screamingly-funny theater bitchiness, Ziegler devotes most of the book to the almost day-to-day business dealings of building the National.  For one of the foremost actors of his age, the great dramas of Olivier’s life were born in board rooms, political gatherings and backstage meetings.  More than just an actor-manager of the old school, Olivier virtually carried the foundation, creation, formation and survival of the National Theater on his back.  When the Board, in a stunning act of treachery, let him go after it was up-and-running, Olivier’s physical and mental health were permanently hampered.  It’s odd for a theatrical biography to read like a business primer, but it is this heroic struggle that made Olivier so interesting, and what makes Ziegler’s book so out of the ordinary.

This is certainly a warts-in-all portrait, but more often it seems that Olivier was more sinned-against than sinning.  Ziegler looks at Olivier the husband and father, as well as at Olivier the artist.  It would seem that he was a man capable of great generosity, kindness and wit – but a basilisk if you crossed him or got in the way of his ambition.  Like many great men, he was a mixture of the petty and the perfect, of vaunting ambition and piddling meanness.

For those who love backstage stories, Ziegler does not disappoint.  One of the more interesting revelations for Your Correspondent was Olivier’s volcanic temper and gifted potty-mouth.  At one point, Olivier calls fellow actor Laurence Harvey a “fucking stupid, sniveling, little cunt-faced asshole.”  Though hardly Shakespearen, such invective is heroic.

But these aren’t the stories that resonate with Ziegler, amusing as they are.  Olivier had Olympian aspirations, and Ziegler wisely reflects those aspirations in the story of his life, matching them up against his very real achievements, which continue to reverberate in the world of theater today.  Ziegler, a biographer of Lord Mountbatten, actually closes his biography with notes on the similarity between the two men.  This is a book for those who long for star biographies, but with a little more depth.  Highly recommended.


Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Bill Cunningham New York, a Film by Richard Press (2011)


Photographer Bill Cunningham (born 1929) loves clothes.  He initially started as a hat maker, a trade he happily plied until he was drafted.  Back in his civvies, he worked as a fashion photographer until he grew unhappy with the demands upon his vision and editorial policies that he saw as unkind to average people who wore designer clothes.  Without regret, he left for different (if not greener) pastures.

Instead, he started taking pictures of New Yorkers as they were on the street – a fascinating record of how Gothamites have dressed and looked since 1978.  His New York Times column, On The Street, is a weekly collection of the trends or looks he noted each week, for which he also does the layout and a brief commentary.

Filmmaker Richard Press created a documentary about this illusive figure in 2011, Bill Cunningham New York.  The film tracked Cunningham breezing through Manhattan on bicycle and living in his tiny apartment in the Carnegie Hall building – an apartment with no closet, kitchen or private bathroom.  The apartment was furnished only with filing cabinets (holding hundreds of thousands of his photographs), a mattress propped up on some books and boxes, and many books.  Cunningham lived there happily until the Carnegie Hall Corporation evicted him in 2010 – an artist, a living New York institution, and a man well into his 80s.  Think of that the next time you want to spend your hard-earned ticket money.

Cunningham, who never married, lives a life of Spartan simplicity.  His home is, for the most part, on the streets of New York.  Cunningham is not interested in celebrities, models or people paid to wear the latest fashions.  His art is akin to stealth warfare – he sneaks onto the teeming streets of New York, gets his shots, and retreats to the Times to do his column.  His has very little life other than this.

Though Press’ film does an admirable job of shedding light on Cunningham and his life, the artist’s natural reticence renders him a somewhat opaque figure – even his closest friends know little of his private life.  In the few instances in the film where Cunningham is asked direct questions, his answers are more evasive than luminous.  In the final analysis, Cunningham comes across as a sad, rather stunted man.  His palpable sense of joy at both photography and clothes is a delight – but other than that sense of freedom and joy, there seems to be little else to him.

Disquieting too is the New York depicted in the documentary.  We are given snippets of commentary from people as diverse as Tom Wolfe (born 1931), Anna Wintour (born 1949),  Patrick McDonald (who strikes us as rather ridiculous), Kenny Kenny (who seems to be some kind of drag performer), and Harold Koda (1950) – and Your Correspondent’s takeaway is that New York is rather a squalid, provincial, intellectually challenged little burgh.  The City of this documentary seems insular, incurious, uninteresting and rather dirty. 

Now, despite its fecundity, New York is a blank canvas – people mostly see what they bring to it, and not how it really is.  I think the problem for me is that this is not my New York and, frankly, the idea of being stuck in this version fills me with something akin to dread.

Still, for people who have a taste for big city street vibes, New York eccentrics, the world of fashion or even the triumph of free spirits, then Bill Cunningham New York is a safe viewing bet.  It’s available at Amazon.com and at Barnes & Noble nationwide.


Friday, April 1, 2016

The Sacrifice of Isaac, Franz Anton Maulbertsch



To Your Correspondent, it’s one of the most inexplicable passages in the Old Testament.  In order to assure himself of Abraham’s devotion, God orders him to kill his son, Isaac.  And … Abraham agrees. 

In Genesis 22, you will find the tale of how God had Abraham take Isaac up to the land of Moriah (a great distance away), separate the boy from the bearers and others that travelled with them, and then had the poor boy cut and carry wood for his own sacrifice.

Abraham readies the alter and wood, only to then bind Isaac and place him upon the pyre.  He is about to stab the boy to fulfill God’s command when God sends an angel to stop him.  God provides a ram, stuck in the nearby bushes, as a substitute, and one assumes that they went home, with Isaac never to turn his back on his father or trust him again for an instant.

It is stories like this that make Your Correspondent, a product of 13 years of private Catholic schooling, wonder if anyone reads this stuff critically.  The Biblical point here is that Abraham, after luring his son away from witnesses and making the poor boy carry the wood for his own funeral pyre, is viewed heroically because he valued God’s word more than he did the life of his own son.  The religious reading of the story puts a smiley face on an act of stupefying barbarism.  It’s an act of religious obligation counter to common sense, ethics and even fundamental morality.  This is the kind of thinking that leads to jihadism, suicide bombings, and the murder of abortion providers, much less countenancing child abuse.

We have looked at a number of brilliant depictions of this fable in the past, and to that list we must add that of Franz Anton Maulbertsch (1724-1796), currently in the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest, Hungary.

Looking at Maulbertsch’s work, one marvels at his ability to tell a story vertically.  For much of his work, the story sweeps up and down, rather than across.  Maulbertsch packs a great deal of drama in this picture, mostly communicated through composition and coloration.  Indeed, though Maulbertsch was a capable painter, his true genius lie in color and composition.  Weaknesses in drawing and painting are more than compensated for by his use of both to drive the narrative.  He has an artistic point of view – something that some more technically skilled painters lack, leaving their work sterile or unmoving.

The painting swoops from lower left (the angel’s wings and Isaac’s wonderfully lit legs), though the body of the boy and leading up to Abraham’s face, the light reflected on his helmet, and his upraised knife.  In that bottom to top arc, we have the entire story of the near sacrifice, told with impressive narrative thrust and significant drama.

No one would accuse Maulbertsch of delicacy when rendering the human face; indeed, many of his faces are indistinct or only adequately drawn.  Look, however, at Abraham’s face, which is very striking indeed.  Shown only in half light, this is the look of religious mania at its worst – the satisfaction evident on his face is consistent with people who have gone blood simple, and relish the act of murder.

Another reading is, of course, that Abraham’s face is lustful.  Time and again in depictions of Abraham and Isaac from artists as diverse as Caravaggio, Rembrandt and Titian, we have seen something in the myth that seems to inspire dark contemplations of parental abuse, sexual and otherwise.  All of these painters have fetishized Isaac to some degree, and Maulbertsch is no different.  Note the radiant, heavenly light specifically highlighting his muscular legs and flat stomach, focusing its spotlight on his private parts.  Discreetly covered by the torn fragments of his robe, there is no mistaking that the focal point of the painting is Isaac’s groin. Indeed, if the eye flows up in a straight line, Abraham’s knife is directly over Isaac’s genitals.

Though rendered without “fussiness” or fine detail, Maulbertsch’s take on the Abraham/Isaac myth has an almost Mannerist monumentality and epic feel.  It is not my favorite painting of the myth, but it may be one of the most idiosyncratic.