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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Jaffa (2009)

This is Romeo and Juliet, Israeli-style, with a great script and cast, and as is usual in a Film Movement film, spectacular cinematography.
Here's the story. Mali's father Reuven owns a garage in Jaffa, the 'old town' south of Tel Aviv that is still a cross-cultural mix of Arabs and Jews. But the Jews tend to the the employers and the Arabs the employees, as is the case with Reuven and Hassan, and then Hassan's son, Toufik. Reuvin treats father and son respectfully, but there is that relationship, none-the-less. Reuvin's son Meir is another story--he is work avoidant, quick to blame others when his work is not done, and racist. He treats the Arabs working in his father's garage like second class citizens.
Why is this a problem--well, first, Meir's sister Mali is in love with Toufik, and this has been going on for quite some time. They have kept their relationship a secret up til now, but Mali is pregnant and they plan to leave Israel to marry. All is going along according to this doomed plan until Meir and Toufik get into a fight that Meir started, but Toufik ends by decking Meir, and inadvertantly killing him.
There is nothing like untimely death to change a mediocre man into a martyr, and Meir's family wastes no time doing so. Mali is caught in the middle, and largely chooses family over love, but not quite. Her unhappiness is palpable throughout the back end of the movie, and it ends on a bittersweet note.
The movie is tragic, the story of these two lovers left to us as a paradigm for how untenable easy solutions are in Israel today.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The End of the Road by David Grossman

The author lost a son in the Israeli-Lebanon conflict in 2006, so he has an intimate reason to write about the effects of the Palestinian-Isralei contflict. He not only has lived it, he has lost to it, no matter the ultimate outcome. As the parent of a childhood cancer survivor, I am very aware of the fear of one's child's death, but I cannot imagine the actual loss. This book does not bring me any closer to that realization, but then the author does state that the book was well constructed prior to his son's death.
The book revolves around a classic love triangle--Ora and her two men, Avram and Ilan. She is married to Ilan, but she has a son with each of them, for reasons that are complicated, but suffice it to say that all three are damaged by their military experiences in the 1960's and how they ended up made sense given what happenend. Her son by Avram, Ofer, was discharged from the military and he and Ora had planned a big trek across Israel to celebrate--but then Ofer re-enlists for a dangerous mission, and Ora cannot take it. She vividly fears having someone come to tell her that Ofer has been killed. She decides to take off on the trip with Ofer's father, making herself unavailable--she calls herself a 'notifier-refusnik'. She has the magical thinking of one who cannot bear the alternative--if they can't tell her Ofer was killed then he is therefore alive.
War is hell, the book tells us, but not only because of it's brutality but because, in the case of Israel, of it's constancy. It is always there. No break, every generation has to fight it, and there is no end in sight. And it is emotionally exhausting.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Downton Abbey (2010)

This is a wonderful soap opera in Edwardian clothing that brilliantly portray the lives of 18 main characters, the upstairs and downstairs residents of a stately country house, from the spring of 1912 to the beginning of World War I in 1914.
There are many more likable characters, starting with the master of the house, the Earl of Grantham, played by Hugh Bonneville as a benign dictator smart enough to realize that the world is rapidly changing around him.
The series opens with the Earl receiving a telegram about the sinking of the Titanic. His cousin and his cousin's son have drowned, leaving the future of Downton Abbey in peril. The Earl and his American wife (Elizabeth McGovern) have three daughters, none of who can inherit it, so the estate and all its money will pass to a distant cousin. Since the series is based on an original script, there are elements one wouldn't normally find in, say, an Edwardian novel adaptation, like the homosexual affair between a servant and a member of the ruling class. These subplots make the portrayed world of Downton Abbey seem all the more realistic.
Like almost all British television shows, the acting is frequently inspired. Maggie Smith plays the Dowager Countess, the mother of the Earl, as a droll snob.
The central theme of the series is the struggle between the comforts of staying the same and the potential rewards of progress. For every Mrs. Patmore, the cook who wants nothing more than to stay in service the remainder of her life, there is a housemaid such as Gwen (Rose Leslie), who dreams of becoming a secretary in a modern office. It's these dichotomies, and the way they exist within both the Abbey itself (half the rooms have electricity and half don't) and its multifaceted inhabitants that make Downton Abbey a great class study.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Red Herring Without Mustard by Alan Bradley

I love Flavia de Luce, the 11-year old heroine of this third book in the series set in the late 1950's in England, written by Alan Bradley. She is a precocious murder mystery solver who is invnetive, smart, shows a lot of common sense, and has a preternatural knowledge of chemistry. The more I read about her, the more I like her. She also has a good head on her shoulders and a firm moral compass that guides her through some things that her father wouldn't approve of her doing. In this installment, she uncovers a little bit more about her mother, who died when she was too young to really know her, and Flavia starts to get a sense that she might be a bit like her, which makes her more attached to her and more sad that she missed knowing her. The estate she lives on is the one her mother grew up on, so the discoveries are likely to keep appearing in upcoming books. I liked this one very much. The plot is completely unrealistic, but that doesn't detract from the telling of the story. The whole series would work for both young adults and fully matured reading audiences.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Love and Other Drugs (2010)

Ok, this is a straight up romantic comedy, with a teeny bit of drama thrown in, as well as lots of sex. Anne Hathaway's breasts and lovely legs make frequent appearances, followed by Jake Gylenhaal's derriere.
These are two dysfuntional people who can't seem to shake each other. Both have their excuses for who they are and why they act this way. Maggie (Hathaway) is gorgeous, talented, and has significant impairment from Parkinson's disease at age 26, which does not bode well for her future. She is self medicating her resultant depression with sex rather than booze (along with an anti-depressant). Jamie (Gylenhaal) grew up in a hyper-competative family where one sibling ishas an IPO going on while the other is arguing with their father about how to fix health care and cure cancer. Jamie stopped competing with them on their turf long ago and went with his strengths--seducing and bedding women.
Not the ideal couple for a deep relationship--they could use therapy but they choose sex, and it does eventually lead to something that might be life-changing for them. The film stops short of actually uncovering what that might look like, but it was a good, not too formulaic romance. Not to watch with anyone you would be uncomfortable watching people have sex with, because really, there was quite a bit of that.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Promise: Barak Obama, Year One by Jonathan Alter

I admire Barack Obama and have always seen him as a centrist. When he talks about transforming government, he is not advocating radical change, but rather that we make the decisions that need to be made to ensure our future as a world leader in the economy.
The gap between the apoplectic rhetoric of the right and the reality of the Obama administration seems even more pronounced after reading Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter’s new book The Promise, which depicts Obama’s first year in office as a clinic in sound decisionmaking. Obama is seen shuttling between policy meetings that he concludes by enumerating “take home” messages, and his study where he reads briefing binders late into the night. While George W. Bush may have been our first president with an MBA, it is Obama who seems to have absorbed the management practices taught in business schools. The result is a White House that feels wonky, competent, slightly claustrophobic, and even a little boring, but never revolutionary.
Yet there is clearly something else going on. In an interview with Alter, Obama describes his approach to policymaking as a search for the correct answer to a problem. In this view, if you ask analytic questions, collect good information, and strip away ideological predilections, the right policy choices for America should become self-evident.
During the 2008 campaign, Obama was covered from more angles than any presidential candidate has been before. Why he ran was not self-evident. The answer is not forthcoming in “The Promise,” either.
Obama has made mistakes but he has learned from them (think George Washington). He is very good at politics. The second is that by parsing the difference between Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, Obama made it clear that he, too, aims to have a transformational effect on America. Obama is content for now to present himself as a technocrat solving problems, but one suspects that he has a grander design in mind. For those who have faith in him, this is the promise of his presidency. But for those who don’t, this is the real threat, that the best player at the table has not yet shown all his cards.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Inside Job (2010)

I reiterate the quote from 'The Tempest' here because it is again sadly appropriate:
"Hell is empty. All the devils are here."
And not in jail.
The documentary “Inside Job,” written and directed by Charles Ferguson provides the most comprehensive brief narrative of the causes of the financial crisis that started to seriously unravel in 2008. Many documentaries are good at drawing attention to an outrage and stirring up our feelings. Ferguson’s film certainly does this, but his exposition of complex information is also masterly. Indignation is often the most self-deluding of emotions; this movie has the rare gifts of lucid passion and informed rage.
Apologists for the financial industry talk of rational actors pursuing their interests in ways that may have been greedy but never veered into illegal or unethical behavior. After all, many executives, such as Dick Fuld, of Lehman Brothers, who believed in profit-making instruments like collateralized debt obligations and credit-default swaps, wound up losing their jobs and their companies. Doesn’t that prove their good faith?
Ferguson doesn't beleive a word of it. He uses interviews and historical information to suggest that many of the transactions weren’t rational at all. They may have been profitable in the short term, but they were destructive to the companies the executives worked for, and he demonstrates that anyone with common sense and a skeptical view of unregulated financial markets could have seen the dangers coming. None of the senior public officials with an ideological commitment to deregulation, like Alan Greenspan, Hank Paulson, and Ben Bernanke, and none of the investment-bank executives who made hundreds of millions from the C.D.O. boom were willing to speak to Ferguson on camera. So he brings forth the savants who warned of the impending crisis early on: Nouriel Roubini, of New York University, whose musical Persian-Israeli-Turkish-accented English is delightful; and Raghuram Rajan, now of the University of Chicago, who, in 2005, while serving as the chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, delivered a paper warning of the disaster to come in front of an audience that included Alan Greenspan and Larry Summers, and was ignored or criticized for his efforts. Roubini and Rajan, awed by the size of the crisis they were unable to prevent, are now sombre models of contained ego and radiant pride.
Nothing like the same could be said of the academic economists, including Glenn Hubbard and Frederic Mishkin, of Columbia Business School, and Martin Feldstein and John Campbell, of Harvard, who hem and haw and evade the simplest questions about conflict of interest or bad advice--and above all think they did nothing wrong. Ferguson, interviewing them from behind the camera (Matt Damon narrates the film), questions them with increasing exasperation, and, one after another, the academics disgrace themselves. Ferguson finds a hero in none other than Eliot Spitzer, who prosecuted fraud in the financial industry in 2002. Five years ago, expensive evenings with hookers and drugs were part of the exhilarated Manhattan madness of the investment-banking life. The underlings who procured such services—hiding the costs in phony expense chits—could now be flipped and forced to testify against their bosses, who may be guilty of much more consequential malfeasance. With perfect tact, Spitzer says that he might not be the most appropriate person to suggest such a course for prosecutors. But he suggests it nonetheless.
The scariest part was that all these guys who brought this down--where are they now? in the Obama administration. It may be a case of keeping your friends close and your enemies closer or it may just be scary.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

A Change of Place

We spent spring break with our extended family in Steamboat Springs Colorado (those are two of my children at the bottom of the bunny hill, unable to successfully navigate the poma lift). Our housing had an incredible view of the mountains, and it struck me how peaceful it is to be in a different place than home.
Don't get me wrong. I love my house, and I live in a peaceful place. People don't always lock their doors here. That kind of peaceful. My house is in a wooded setting, with a flock of wild turkeys in the backyard, and more deer than you can easily count, with bald eagles regularly sighted overhead. But there is something very relaxing about being in another peaceful place for a period of time. I had a lot of trouble with the altitude, and didn't do much in the way of activity as a result. No matter. That wasn't the thing I needed. It just felt very good to be away, to be with people I enjoy spending time with, and to share the experience.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Come Undone (2010)

This movie is a sober exploration of the slowly unfolding disruptive effects of adultery on family life, portrays infidelity, despite its thrills, as more trouble than it’s worth emotionally--not to mention who you hurt along the way. At the same time, the sex scenes show the power of unleashed passion to make the rest of life feel like a laborious, frustrating slog. Any one contemplating an affair should watch this beautifully filmed Italian movie.
The affair is between two married people, and they are in no way interested in leaving their spouses. The affair is an impulsive one, no thought to future consequences--so what we see is mostly the sad conflicts that they face. Miserable and agitated when not together, Anna (Alba Rohrwacher), a comfortably married accountant for a small insurance agency, and Domenico (Pierfrancesco Favino), a slightly older waiter who is less happily married with two children he adores, are seized by an irresistible attraction. The besotted lovers face the usual logistical obstacles. Where and when will they meet? And what lies can they get away with telling?
The movie shows the day-by-day emotional cost of the affair: not only to Anna and Domenico, who are increasingly guilt-ridden and prickly with each other, but also to family, friends and business associates. The lovers have to contend with intense work schedules, family obligations and financial stress.
The movie tells an old story. What is fresh about it is its unvarnished realism lends it poignancy and depth.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Orick

The author has a self-avowed love of Henry James, and she strived in this novel to recapitulate his book 'The Ambassadors', but in reverse. She sends Americans to Europe and there is a reflection on Europe as it compares to America, but through the opposite eyes. The book is also about family dysfunction and personality disorder.
The central character in the book, the middle-aged Bea Nightingale, is sent by her estranged brother to Paris to retrieve her nephew Julian from a bohemian idyll. Taking place in the early 1950s, however, "Foreign Bodies" offers not a sophisticated Europe but a devastated one. The Paris that Bea discovers is exhausted, overrun with refugees, shattered by the after-effects of the war. It is the epitome of the Old World that Julian's father, Marvin, a California aeronautics designer, has spent his life trying to put behind him. Bea's adventures and misadventures highlight the tensions that motivate this novel, between history and progress, the elusive promises of the future and the relentless undercurrents of the past. Bea comes off looking ver good in this book, but Marvin and his children do not. Excellent read.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Country Teacher (2008)

Petr (Pavel Liska), the title character of “The Country Teacher,” is a pensive, bespectacled Czech in his 30s who impulsively leaves Prague to take a job teaching natural science in a rural village. Why? It is complicated.
He is gay and not really comfortable with being openly gay. He is also not a one night stand kind of guy, so the Prague gay scene leaves him confused and unhappy. So he leaves the big city and takes a job as a teacher in a small Czech town.
there he is temporarily housed near the school at the farm of Marie (Zuzana Bydzovska), a lean, weatherbeaten woman with a bitter marital history who is bringing up an unruly teenage son, Lada (Ladislav Sedivy). When Marie casually signals her availability to Petr, he gently fends off her advances. She assumes that it is because she is too old for him, and he doesn’t correct her.
Instead, he harbors a secret crush on Marie’s wiry 17-year-old son, who lolls in the hay with his girlfriend in a state of perpetual heat. As Petr’s desire intensifies, he expresses his adoration by tutoring the boy, who responds to his attention and demonstrates a newfound interest in his studies. But he is decidedly straight, and while Petr is unconsciously aware of this, he makes a move anyway, and upsets the tenuously tethered relationship the three have fostered.
Marie and Petr gradually move towards a relationship that recognizes his sexuality, and after much consternation, he reveals it to the school's principal as well. It is the beginning of a new era for him, one that is honest, and where he can make real relationships. All that remains is to obtain Lada's forgiveness--which is a harder sell, but in the end they manage.
This is a wonderful bittersweet journey towards an honest, open, and gratifying life for a gay man.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

This book is a profoundly insightful book, deceptive in it's complexity because it is presented in such a straightforward manner. I loved everything about this book except for the characters. For the most part, I would avoid having dinner with any of them, but the story itself is intriguing, and unfolds in a unique pattern, where we know things that happen later before we have the back story. Once we see where the characters have come from, it is easier to understand why they are where they are today.
In the simplest assessment, the story focuses on the marriage of Walter and Patty. Then the story unfolds to demonstrate all the factors that lead them to where they are in present day. They are shaped by their families of origin, and in turn they frame their children and their future choices. The story is not a happy one, nor is it a tragic one. There are things that we the reader see that the character is blind to, which elevates the book into the realm of a modern classic. One that reflects the society in which we live in the twenty first century in an emblematic way. the values we have, the politics that operate, and the priorities we hold are all very much in play in this novel. It is brilliant and vibrant, destined to be a classic.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Congress St. Bat Bridge, Austin, TX

There are many things that I did not know about Austin. The coolest fact is that they host the largest urban population of bats in America. Starting now, and going through the fall, about a million bats make the Congress St. bridge their home. They migrate from Mexico, birth and raise their pups, and then take off. So the very best time to see them is in August, but even at low density times, they are impressive to watch. The bridge was renovated in 1980,creating hundreds of narrow but deep openings that are apparently just what the pregnant bat ordered in terms of hospitable accommodations. So babies are born in June and July, and are up and about by fall. At or near sunset, the bats take off in a cloud of, well, bats, to go hunting for food. I think it is a great thing for a city to embrace their bats rather than trying to find ways to discourage their return. Austin, not just for music--there is urban eco-tourism to be had there as well.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Operation Mincemeat by Ben Macintyre

The subtitle is 'How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured Allied Victory'. Which pretty much sums up the book's contents.
The tale of the transformation of an "unknown" corpse into the fictitious Captain William Martin – whose body, complete with an entirely invented past life (theatre stubs, love letters) and, crucially, misleading information on the forthcoming invasion of Sicily, was deployed, apparently drowned, into the sea off Spain in 1943 as a "Trojan horse" to find its way back to German intelligence – was the basis of the 1956 film The Man Who Never Was. But as with so many films and books in the two decades following the war, propagandising and officialdom prevented the entire story from coming to light: Macintyre, by means of extensive sleuthing – there are more than 30 pages of impeccable annotated notes – and a fortuitous visit to the son of intelligence officer Ewen Montagu, one of the main players possessed of the necessary "corkscrew mind", gives the final word on this extraordinary episode.
It was, ultimately, a success. Hitler was persuaded that the Mediterranean offensive would come at Greece and Sardinia, and any attack on Sicily would be a feint. His defences were radically, disastrously shifted and the rest is history. It was a way to avoid the still well-oiled German war machine. They needed a bit of good fortune, which they got.
But a huge part of the story is the strange men in British intelligence, and the strange world they inhabited, who were behind the planning, including Ian Fleming. They appear, in this book, to have lost their perspective on what would constitute normalcy--they were entirely wrapped up in the spy and subterfuge efforts. True, they needed some luck, but they also displayed uncanny adroitness, not just in the selling of deception but in its after-sales care.
Great story well told.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

McCollister Farm Remodel

Our 1860 farm house, after months of having unglamorous remodeling (heat, air, plumbing, electrical, hooking up to city water and sewage)--stuff that either you couldn't see the improvement, or in the case of the sewer hookup, made the yard look remarkably worse, we are finally at a point where the house is coming together and we can actually imagine living there. We have spent the last several weekends painting, and even that makes it look crisper and lighter. All the scuffs and bumps are now under yet another layer of paint, and it looks cheerful and inviting.

The flooring in the house is imaginative. Tile from the 1960's, 5 1/4"pine flooring laid right on the joists from the original house, plywood flooring in over half the house--then one spectacular floor right in the center of the house. After months of searching, we finally found some old vertical pine flooring that didn't look so hot at first glance, but once it was planed is gorgeous--not new looking, but absolutely gorgeos and the first floor, the dining room floor, was laid last week. It really makes the house look amazing.
The other big addition this week is that the kitchen cabinets are going in. Since this is the room where all the food happens, I am now able to envision moving in. There are endless things to do in a house this old, but now i finally feel like we are on our way.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes

Wow. This is the book to read about the Vietnam War. I have read 'Girl by the Side of the Road at Night' by David Rabe and Tim O'Brien's classic 'The Things They Carried' in the past two months, and they cannot hold a candle to this book. The author is a decorated Vietnam veteran who wrote the book over 30 years while holding a job and raising a family, so the tale benefits from the perspective and wisdom that can come from the passage of time, mixed with the real life battle experience the author endured.
We follow the soldiers of Bravo Company as they march--or trudge--through the Vietnamese jungle. It has been said that the books about WWII came out during the Vietnam War, and maybe the best books about Vietnam will come out during our current war. There are some real parallels in the story here and the one depicted in the Oscar-nominated documentary 'Restrepo'.
True in war, all victory is fleeting. The the young Marines of Bravo Company are not even momentarily satisfied. 'Victory' means establishing a firebase on Matterhorn, digging fortifications, abandoning them to the enemy, then taking them back three days later. They don't know what they're trying to accomplish, and in the end they don't care. They endure, or they perish, for no identifiable reason. The book has sustained depictions of the drudgery of jungle warfare the men of Bravo endure leeches, diarrhea, jungle rot, malnutrition, dehydration, immersion foot and stupidity run amok. Senior officers define their objective simply (to kill "gooks") and micromanage their troops incessantly, radios crackling with requests for body counts even in the middle of firefights.
Between maddening doses of bureaucratic incompetence, racial conflict bordering on mutiny and junior officers caught in the middle, killing is about the only thing that makes sense. But the Marines in Bravo aren't quite sure whom they'd like to kill more: the enemy out there or the enemy within. This is a war not of conquest, after all, but of attrition. Meanwhile, soldiers remind themselves of the honor-bound traditions of the Corps: Semper Fi and never leave a Marine behind. For days on end, dehydrated and starving, they carry the rotting corpses of their fallen comrades rather than succumb to a loss of honor. To an outsider, it seems at best impractical and at worst suicidal. Such is war. This is appalling and compelling at the same time.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Small Dishes

I was at a meeting in Austin recently where the appetizers at a reception were served in small individual dishes. The dishware they used was all a similar size, but came in various shapes so that it looked very pretty either arranged on the buffet table or when the servers passed through the crowd with them. This technique allows for foods that you need a fork to eat, and it also accomodates some sauces--not an option when they are merely handing you a napkin. Best of all the cook can use some artful presentation techniques and do small but elegant composed dishes. It was so much nicer than the usual hotel hosted reception, and may lend itself to some home parties as well.

Monday, March 14, 2011

One Day by David Nicholls

This is a painful book about two friends who meet in college, Dexter and Emma. Painful because we watch them grow up. I do not want to go back to that time, and have to relive all those moments, but the book takes us through them, none-the-less. Dex and Emma have a bit of an attraction for one another at the time, but they are both about to graduate. They do not pursue the physical relationship then, or as they move through their twenties and into their thirties--or not much, at least (an occasional flirt with something more)--but they do keep hold of their friendship. The book is told in a series of meetings over the years. We watch the optimistic Emma struggle with job and work and love and writing, while Dexter seems to sail through effortlessly. He is a TV host for a less than intellectual show, which brings him money, recognition, and women. All of which he is quite sure he deserves. Emma is the only person in his life who will tell him that he really is just an ordinary man who has yet to grow up.
But then there is the inevitable fall from grace for Dexter, and the paying off of hard work for Emma that changes their friendship. The book is wonderfully paced and very hard to put down.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Is Anyone There? (2008)

There are two excellent reasons to watch this small film about the unlikely friendship between an oddball boy and an irritable old codger: the performances by talented young Bill Milner (who was so amazing in 'Son of Rambow') and the ever-entertaining Michael Caine (who really is a marvel to watch--even 'Harry Brown' was saved by his performance from utter failure). The movie uses a gallows humor to approach the dementia and death with wry compassion.
Milner plays 10-year-old Edward, only child of a couple who have turned their sprawling and slightly dilapidated house into a retirement home. A shy boy with an interest in the paranormal and a serious chip on his shoulder about having to share his house with the elderly, Edward lurks around the near-dying, sometimes hiding a tape recorder under their beds to record whatever sounds accompany a soul’s ascent into the afterlife.
When one renter dies another replaces them. Michael Caine plays Clarence, a cantankerous retired magician in need of room and board. Despite an initial antipathy toward each other, a bit of stage business to establish Clarence as world-class curmudgeon and Edward as mischievous loner, he and the boy become fellow travelers. Clarence teaches his adopted protégé lessons about life along with elementary card tricks and Edward makes Clarence not wish to be dead.
But all is not fun and games. Clarence claims to be of sound mind, but in fact we see over time that he is not. Caine does a superb job conveying Clarence’s subtle slide into senility. The film is well-crafted, thoughtful and sentimental in the best sense.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Possessed by Elif Batuman

This book is subtitled: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them. It is going a bit far to call these tales of adventure, but it is a wonderful memoir.
Are comical things more likely to happen to funny people, or is funniness simply the ability to make ordinary things seem comical? I think the later. Countless people have gone to graduate school—as Batuman did, in Russian literature at Stanford—and almost as many have spent some time studying abroad—as Batuman did when she spent a summer learning Uzbek in the Central Asian city of Samarkand. The clichés about both—the unfinishable dissertation, the weird host family--could be wonderfully told or very trivial. Batuman really makes everything that happens to her seem funny and interesting--such a gift. In writing about her own education, Batuman manages to make it sound wonderfully grotesque, like a cross between Borges and Borat. How does she do it? It is her wry, detached sense of humor--she always on the lookout for scholarly absurdity, which she mixes with the understated wit of her writing. You'll never read Tolstoy again without thinking of this very funny book.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Too Passionate to Be Faithful?

Usually I find it amusing when people so clearly do not practice what they preach. Newt Gingrich is a prime example of this adage. He has in fact invoked just that in the past.
Newt, when asked how he could be unfaithful and give a speech on family values responded: "It doesn't matter what I do," he answered. "People need to hear what I have to say. There's no one else who can say what I can say. It doesn't matter what I live."
Really? No one? It is the stuff of Saturday Night Live skits. If it weren't so sad and narcissistic it would be funny.
And maybe he considers consistency a virtue, because he has a long standing pattern of personal behavior that flies in the face of respect for the value of marriage and a nuclear family.
"In 1994, Gingrich responded to reports he'd had extramarital affairs while running a family-values campaign in 1978 by saying, "In the 1970s, things happened." And apparently they keep happening in the 1980s and the 1990s. Some habits are hard to break, but it seems adolescent to pretend that you can be a spokesperson for an institution that you clearly don't respect.
Nor is he a very nice guy. He outlined his first divorce at his soon to be ex-wife's hospital bedside while she was recovering from surgery for uterine cancer. He failed to keep up with child support, although he states he loves his children (loves them, doesn't care to feed and cloth them)--all this after his first wife put him through college and graduate school.
Yesterday was my favorite of the bunch, though--now Newt, again trying to get back on the ultra-conservative band wagon, averred that it was his passion for his country that led him off the marriage rails and into the land of screwing around. As a psychiatrist, I have heard a lot of excuses for a lot of personal choices, but this one is new to me. Who will buy it? Time will tell.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Snowcake (2006)

This film is successful because of two remarkable performances by Sigourney Weaver and Alan Rickman. She plays Linda Freeman, a high-functioning autistic woman living in a rural Ontario town called Wawa. With her face scrubbed clean of makeup and exhibiting expressions that shift between childish delight, unrestrained panic, and flatly delivered truths, Ms. Weaver gives a technically accomplished performance. Her character is so far from anything she has ever played that it takes a while to recognize her, but it is indeed Sigourney Weaver.
She meets Alan Rickman because he picked up her daughter, Vivienne, as a hitchhiker and she was then killed in an accident that he is blameless for. This is of note because he has just gotten out of prison for manslaughter--he killed a man unintentionally. It is hard to say how much this influences Mr. Rickman's character because he is a bit of a handful emotionally. He is a scowling, humorless, baggy-eyed misanthrope whose grumbling tone and suspicious gaze convey defeat and despair. He is occasionally capable of sardonic self-deprecation: “I don’t have baggage; I have haulage,” he remarks. And he is not exaggerating. Or at least not by much.
They are thrown together by the accident, and they stay together for reasons that are unclear to Rickman, but he sees that he needs the time out. Linda is perfect--she tells him truths that he can't face and no one else will verbalize. She has her impossible phobias, but he doesn't much challenge them, and she allows him to work towards a better place. He takes over the funeral for Vivienne and really does a fine job. It assuages his guilt, this stop over, and allows him to move on to his next guilt. A peaceful look at healing.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Emperor of all Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee

This is a remarkable book, regardless of what your relationship to cancer is. Mine is close--my youngest son had a medulloblastoma, diagnosed in 2000. The prognosis for his tumor has changed remarkably over the 25 years since I graduated from medical school and this book covers some of that territory--the science of how cancers work and how we might treat and prevent them with that knowledge. I am very grateful for the oncologists and patients who went before him, who contributed to the knowledge that has allowed him to live this last decade. My interest in the subject is perhaps above average, but 1 in 4 Americans will dies of cancer, and 1 in 3 will be diagnosed with it, so the disease will touch us or someone we know at some point in our lives.
The book is part story, part science, and is written warmly. It is a joy to read, even at the point where one might be struggling with the science. There are plenty of personal tales within the volume to give the reader a sense of what patients face, and how it affects the health care professionals who take care of them as well. I recommend this as a modern treatise on an old disease.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Things We Lost in the Fire (2007)

This is not a movie that garnered a lot of positive press when it came out, but I thought it was emotionally complicated in a way that made me think. Halle Berry and Benicio Del Toro are strong actors who give good performances here, and Susanne Biers is one of my favorite all time directors (I fell for her when I saw 'Brodre', but 'After the Wedding' was the deal sealer for me). The slam that this movie has taken is that it is too formulaic, but I disagree.
Brian is a smart, successful man married to a beautiful wife, has two great kids, lives in a nice neighborhood--and he has a heroin addicted best friend from childhood that he maintains a life long relationship with. His wife is appalled. She thinks he is someone that everyone else has given up on, and her husband should follow suit. She doesn't get the connection that Jerry gives Brian, nor how important the connection to their shared past is to each of them.
Then Brian gets killed. His wife, Audrey is set adrift. She is frozen, numb, unable to cope with just about everything, and wearing this veil of disengagement, she invites Jerry to live with them. She suddenly can't find anything more connected to Brian than Jerry and she doesn't understand where that need comes from, and it certainly isn't rational, but she decides to go with her gut over her head.
The arrangement works out a lot better than it probably would, but there are episodes of screaming and anger that you rarely see in a film. There are all the stages of grief portrayed, and the unique way out that this story portrays is worth thinking about.
There are lots of things I would have edited differently, but this movie is worth seeing. It has Benicio Del Toro doing a great job getting inside the head of a smart junkie. It shows some of the stability that helps kids overcome loss. That they sense someone's real interest in them, and are willing to accept the less than savory parts. Drugs scare them but Jerry doesn't. Not a light movie, but a though provoking one.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Mekong River Restaurant, Austin, TX

I love 70 degree weather with sunny skies, and even though the winter in Iowa has been remarkably benign, I still enjoyed being in a warm sunny place and walking outside. Austin is primarily a music city--you can figure that our in the airport, because the bar in the terminal that I landed in had live music. But the food was quite good as well.
My favorite food to eat when I travel is ethnic food that is hard or impossible to get where I live, so off I went to the Vietnamese restaurant closest to my hotel. I stopped at the ever-helpful concierge desk to get a map, and the first thing they told me was that there was no such restaurant--possible, because you never know when something will close, but there were reviews as recent as last week, so I was willing to risk it. Then they looked it up, and declared that I indeed was correct and they were wrong--oh, and could I report back to them on what I thought. Happy to do some restaurant reviewing for future Hilton guests--I certainly have benefited from the kindness of strangers. I knew it would be okay when a woman saw me looking at the menu outside, and stopped to give me her recommendations. It is that kind of place. People feel compelled to pull you in.
The Mekong River had mixed ratings on Yelp, but there were several reviews that resonated with me--one guy in particular who waxed eloquently about menu option B6--a grilled pork vermicelli dish with eggrolls. Sounded perfect--and it was. There are several elements of Vietnamese food that I love. The first is that restaurants have a bottle of hoison sauce and a bottle of Sriracha on the table--those are condiments that I can work with. But best of all is the volume of fresh vegetables and herbs that are served alongside of hot food. I love the complexity of the flavors--the marinade for the pork was complex and delicious--but when taken with a mouthful of lettuce and mint, it was exquisite. The whole meal was $7.00 and I took half of it back to the hotel with me. Highly recommended.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Mother and Child (2010)

This is a difficult movie that explores the relationship between mother and child--both biological pairs, and mothers who choose to raise other people's babies. Annette Benning and Naomi Watts are remarkable as biological mother and child. It is hard to say how much of their brittle personalities and emotional distance are related to genetics and how much is related to their having been separated at Watt's birth, or whether it is a combination of the two, but they have a heck of a time with intimate relationships. There is some progress as the film progresses for both of them, but the conclusion is somewhat tragic (and the ob/gyn needed to work a lot harder on the C-section option!).
The movie is painful one to watch, but I think it does speak to a lot of truths. Adopted children do struggle. It is not inevitable, but it is common. You can't ignore that as parents who choose that option. Then there is the fact that children change everything--in so many ways. The tough topics don't often get to the silver screen, and certainly not with this much star power behind them. This is worth watching.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Bridge by David Remnick

"Race isn't rocket science," one of Barack Obama's mentors said. "It's harder."
Ain't that the truth. So this is a biography of our first African-American president, written through the prism of race. Early on in his massive new biography of Barack Obama, cryptically titled The Bridge, David Remnick quotes Bob Dylan on the president: “He’s like a fictional character, but he’s real”. This comes, of course, from a man who clearly knows a thing or two about (self-) mythologizing, and he’s right. There is something unearthly and unbelievable about our president, something that makes his allies and admirers want to lavish praises upon him but makes his opponents distrust him. Is his story too good to be true.
Remnick’s framing of the book is twofold: (a) he wants to deflate the myth by giving Obama to use through the eyes of his friends, family, and classmates; and (b) he wants to increase the power of the myth by presenting Obama as the spiritual heir of the Civil Rights movement—born, as it were, to be the proof of the freedom Martin Luther King and Malcolm X fought and died for--hence the title.
Remnick seeks to accomplish these two contradictory purposes by a single technique: Tell the whole story in all its magnificent, sweeping grandeur, and in all its minute, personal detail.
The aim is to present Obama’s presidency as the logical conclusion of all of these advances. Remnick accomplishes purpose (b) far more successfully than he does purpose (a). The way we know Barack Obama at the end of The Bridge is in the way we feel we know Odysseus or Huck Finn—it is the personal relationship we are able to have with a fictional character. The quotes from people who know Obama that are sprinkled liberally through this book can’t quite shatter our sense that he is beyond knowing; they are less likely to change the reader’s mind about Obama and more likely to prop up whatever his or her preconceptions were—good or bad. Great read.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Feed the Fish (2009)

“Feed the Fish is a feel good romantic comedy. Straight ahead. It is a sweet little story filmed in Door County, Wisconsin. The movie starts with our introduction to Joe Peterson (played by Ross Partridge), children’s book author of “Mr. Kitty Feeds the Fish.” Parents like its tough love message, kids love it because of the violence. Success is sure to come, and he gets an advance on his next project.
But not so fast. Joe is stuck.
He is uninspired by his current settings in SoCal and his abusive fiancé would wilt anyone's creativity, so he heads with his friend JP (Michael Chernus) to the middle of nowhere-northern Wisconsin. In winter.
The cinematography was almost a love letter to Wisconsin – from the framing the lake through a leafless tree to the attention paid to bring the beauty of the Door County night sky to the screen. “Does anyone live here?” Joe asks, looking down the small town street, not so much with scorn as with amusement at the fact that yes, people actually do. He soon meets Sif (Katie Aselton), a hockey-playing young woman home for the holidays (named for the “wife of Thor! God of Thunder!”), her grandfather Axel (Barry Corbin), and her father, Sheriff Andersen (Tony Shalhoub), who makes pop-tarts in a toaster plugged into his police cruiser’s power inverter (seriously? It does end up saying a lot about the sheriff, it turns out).
Humor comes from many places in this film. From Joe’s horrible kid’s book ideas, to slapstick scenes of JP “training” for the Plunge by running around half naked in the snow, to cultural references that may or may not get the same reaction outside of the Midwest (the Sheriff’s reaction to Joe calling 911 to report hunters in his yard ends with the exasperated pronouncement, “we shoot the deer. And then we eat them.”)
An amazing amount of people end up in the emergency room in the movie--but then, that is where some of the real 'aha' moments in the movie take place, and the ease with which charactes make hospital visits is also quite humorous. And it all ends well, like a good romantic comedy should. Quirky and enjoyable.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Comedy in a Minor Key by Hans Keilson

This is a subtle and hopefull WWII novel. Not once does the author mention Hitler. Not once does he mention death camps. Not once does he put the word Nazi on paper.
Rather, he reveals the horrors of the Holocaust in an eerie, intense and very introspective way. He takes readers inside the minds of three main characters and provides a gripping psychoanalysis of what it was like both for a Jew in hiding and the couple who gave him sanctuary.
Originally published in German in 1947, “Comedy in a Minor Key ’’ is out in English for the first time. The novel, a dark comedy, is semi-autobiographical. A Dutch couple, Marie and Wim, agree to hide a Jewish man during World War II. The fugitive, who gives his name as Nico rather than his Jewish-sounding name, dies after a prolonged illness. Dead, the man is more dangerous to the couple than alive. They hide him under a bench, but Marie realizes she has made a tremendous goof: She dressed the dead man in her husband’s pajamas, which have a traceable laundry tag--don't worry, it all works out, but we get a real sense of the emotional inner lives of all three characters. The book’s strength lies in the artful way Keilson reveals the inner emotions of rescuer and fugitive--that is what makes this slim volume so powerful.
Keilson himself is German-born and fled to the Netherlands in 1936. A couple in Delft — the pair named in the book’s dedication — hid Keilson during the war. His parents fled to the Netherlands in 1939, but never went into hiding after the German occupation in 1940; they died at Auschwitz. Keilson, who had trained as a physician in Germany, became a psychoanalyst after the war and treated children traumatized during the Holocaust. Short but intense read.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Shut Up and Shoot Me (2005)

Shut Up and Shoot Me is an affable black comedy from Czech writer-director Steen Agro. It begins when Colin (Andy Nyman) is on holiday in Prague with his wife, when she is unexpectedly crushed by a statue. Which in turn crushes Colin. Unable to handle life without her, he tries to kill himself, but finds that it is harder than he thought, and he can’t go through with it. Instead, he hires Pavel Zeman (Karel Roden), a local man who’s already working at several jobs in order to keep his wife in cosmetic luxury, to do the job for him. Pavel at first tries to fob him off, but the lure of money is too strong, and soon things get complicated, with all the wrong people dying and the two unwilling partners attracting the attention of a local gangster known as the Butcher of Prague.
This isn’t the world’s first suicide-related comedy, and it probably won’t be the last, but it’s quite clever in its little twists and turns. Colin is a fairly standard anxious type, while Pavel is more down to earth and practical type, at first just trying to avoid having to deal with the Englishman or his situation. Actually, Pavel seems a bit heartless early on, and he also doesn’t seem to care when his wife has blown all of Colin’s money and he still hasn’t made good on their deal. He mostly just wants to be left alone, which is an understandable feeling, and it wouldn’t be a problem if Colin just seemed like a crank, but we’ve been with him from the beginning, and seen his wife die. However, as the pace picks up, this becomes less of an issue.
The film is nicely shot, with a contemporary soundtrack. It also displays a subtle suspicion of authority figures, as shown in an administrative screw-up with the wife’s remains and the fact that they never consider going to the police, which leads to a nicely subversive ending. It’s not groundbreaking stuff, but it is well-made, well-written, and very entertaining.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Widower's Tale by Julie Glass

Percy is the widower sharing his tale in this deceptively simple and straighforward book. He has lived in Matlock for over four decades, raising two daughters mostly alont, after his wife drowned in a grievous accident more than 30 years ago. Now in their 40s, his daughters have children of their own.
Except for Percy's devotion to Robert (his grandson), there's little that has complicated Percy's daily life--until now. His older daughter, who recently abandoned her husband and two young children in Brooklyn, has returned home to Matlock without much of a plan. In response, Percy has agreed to lease his huge, picturesque barn to a local preschool called Elves & Fairies, with the provision that his daughter be given a job there--which is a certain amount of mayhem. through the preschool, he gets involved with a woman for the first time since his wife has died, only to find a lump in her breast, and refers her to his eldest daughter--an oncologist renowned for her care of breast cancer patients.
Fortunately, these complications and coindidences feel natural. His story would be engaging enough on its own, but there are many more stories here than just this widower's tale. In a typical Glass technique, the author weaves Percy's first-person narration in and out of several other alternating points of view. We hear from Robert, whose friendship with an impassioned environmental activist might compromise his brilliant Harvard career; Celestino, a Guatemalan gardener with a thorny past and a justifiable fear of deportation; and Ira, a teacher at Elves & Fairies who's conflicted about making a permanent commitment to his boyfriend, a high-end divorce lawyer.
Each strand of this narrative is surprisingly supple, offering a convincing illusion of lives roundly lived. The effect is one of remarkable expansiveness, in which a rather modest small-town story is able to incorporate all kinds of contemporary social issues, including illegal immigration, eco-terrorism, health-care coverage, divorce and gay marriage.
This is a remarkable book, easy to read and hard to forget.