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The Edge of Film

Cold War Films Reflected Shifting US Attitudes

December 28th 2011

Film - Hunt for Red October

In 1946 speech, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill coined the term “Iron Curtain” to describe the physical and symbolic wall separating East and West across Europe. Churchill's speech signaled the beginning of the Cold War.

It ended 20 years ago, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. However, during the Cold War, American films reflected the changing mood of the United States towards the USSR.

Few movies have captured the history of early Communist Russia as well as David Lean’s “Doctor Zhivago.” The film was an epic love story between Yuri Zhivago and Lara, the wife of a communist leader. But it was also a bleak treatise on communist Russia.

Peter Rollberg, professor of film studies at George Washington University, says David Lean’s human treatment of Russians in "Doctor Zhivago" was the exception rather than the rule in Cold War films. “The Cold War created a field of tension that made for well-motivated good stories."

Some of these films, such as “The Manchurian Candidate,” explored the Communist threat on American soil. In the film, war hero Raymond Shaw is brainwashed into assassinating the president of the United States. Read more ..


Movie Reviews

A Dangerous Method: Whatever Turns You On

December 26th 2011

Film - A dangerous method

A Dangerous Method. Director: David Cronenberg. Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Michael Fassbender, Keira Knightley. Length: 99 mins.

Here’s what I liked about David Cronenberg’s new movie, A Dangerous Method, loosely based on the early history of psychoanalysis—as filtered through the work of psychologist cum historian John Kerr (A Most Dangerous Method: The Story of Jung, Freud, and Sabina Spielrein) and playwright Christopher Hampton (The Talking Cure)—in spite of its having reduced that history to little more than a celebrity soap opera. He sets out four different theories about the job of what used to be called the "alienist" or, as P.G. Wodehouse would put it, "the loony doctor" which are still held today. The watchword of Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) is the injunction: "Whatever you do, give up any idea of trying to cure them."

Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), Freud’s younger disciple, fitfully accepts this view of his profession but is too much the enthusiast to accept it for long: "It’s no good showing the patient his illness squatting like a toad in the corner … We must teach him to reinvent himself," he says. Jung also has some sympathy for the view of another renegade Freudian, Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel), who anticipates some of the radical psychiatry of the 1960s by commanding: "Never repress anything"—and by living his own life by that creed with predictably disastrous results. Read more ..


Book Reviews

Hollywood Left and Right: Where Movies Got Politics Right and Wrong

December 26th 2011

Book Covers - hollywood

Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics. Steven J. Ross. Oxford. 2011. 512 pages.

I didn't really want to read this book. I'm finishing one on a related topic, and have reached that point in the process where I just want to be done with it already. But my editor sent Hollywood Left and Right along to me, as good editors do, as a way of nudging me a little bit farther. I'm glad he did. It's a good piece of scholarship. And, I'm happy to report, an entertaining one.

A seasoned film historian, what Steven J. Ross offers here is a set of ten biographies that function as case studies in the way movies stars and impresarios -- sometimes the same person -- have used their cinematic careers for the purposes of political activism. With a sense of judiciousness and empathy toward all his subjects, he renders  five careers on the left (Charlie Chaplin, Edmund G. Robinson, Harry Belafonte, Jane Fonda, and Warren Beatty) and five on the right (Louis B. Mayer, George Murphy, Ronald Reagan, Charlton Heston, and Arnold Schwartzenegger). That said, Ross gently suggests that while we tend to think of Hollywood as a liberal bastion, it has had a series of prominent conservative champions, who on balance have been more successful than liberals in actually realizing their political goals. To that extent, at least, the book has a revisionist air.

Ross does a lot of things well. Each of his chapters offer skillfully limned portraits (Murphy and Reagan, whose careers coincided and interests overlapped, are treated as a pair). In some cases their stories are familiar, but Ross is able to season them with an eye for relevant, sometimes first-hand, observations. He managed to get on interviews with many of his principals, among them reclusive subjects like Beatty, as well as their associates like George McGovern and Gary Hart. Read more ..


Film News

Asian-American Actors Change Face of Hollywood

December 20th 2011

Film - New Hawaii Five-O

For many years, actors whose ancestors came from Asia and the Pacific Islands landed few major roles in Hollywood. And when they did appear, they were often typecast. But recently, the face of Asian Pacific Islanders in film and TV has been changing.

In a recent documentary, “To Whom It May Concern: Ka Shen’s Journey,” actress Nancy Kwan looks back on her life. Ka Shen is her Chinese name. She was born in Hong Kong to a Chinese father and English-Scottish mother.

Kwan made her acting debut in 1960, in "The World of Suzie Wong." She was one of the first Asian actors to star in a Hollywood film.

"When I started out, it was really just the beginning of producers realizing, 'Hey, we’d better use an Asian to play an Asian role,'" Kwan says. "Because in the old days, Asians were played by Caucasians, Caucasian actors." Read more ..


The Edge of Arts

Kenyan Artwork Growing in International Popularity

December 19th 2011

Kenya Topics - Peterson Kamwathi
Peterson Kamwathi (Credit: Megumi Matsubara, Another Africa)

Long overlooked on the international arts scene, Kenya is finally gaining prestige on the world stage. Some artists can now make their living entirely from artwork and collectors are coming from around the world to buy it.

Works by Kenyan artists are exhibited around the globe. World-class galleries cater to foreigners and other Kenyans. And the collectors are paying attention. Born in Kenya, Amyn Abdula now lives in Vancouver. He has been collecting African art for more than 25 years and has more than 150 pieces. The majority are from Kenya. “The more I saw, the more it appealed to me,” said Abdula. “And I think it was actually, because I had left Africa, and that Africa was still in my heart. And when I went to North America, or Europe, or wherever, and whenever I saw some African stuff, it sort of appealed to me.” Collectors anticipate that Kenyan art will soon become as popular as art from west and South Africa. Read more ..


Art on Edge

Dances with Buffaloes

December 18th 2011

Art Topics - Hall of wonders

If there were a truth-in-advertising regulation for exhibitions, this latest at the Smithsonian's American Art Museum would be in trouble. The exhibition is not in a hall, nor is it about wonders, nor really about art. What it is, sadly, is yet another example of how tone deaf this national museum is to the taxpayers who subsidize it, as well as an emblem of the sorry state of contemporary humanities scholarship.

As with so much of this scholarship, "The Great American Hall of Wonders" advances an activist social agenda. The introductory wall text, amplified by the exhibition's catalogue ($45 for the paperback), makes some big claims. It tells us, without proof, "that nineteenth-century Americans considered ingenuity to be their most important asset"; that the exhibition aims "to catch Americans making selections about what was possible and what was not in the land of liberty"; and that "their choices parceled out opportunities in varying measures to the nation's multifold communities and reconfigured its ecological systems in profound and irreversible ways" - whatever that may mean. The wall text ends with this exhortation: "Today's urgent social and environmental challenges call for a great national brainstorm, a collaborative imagining of enduring solutions."

So maybe this exhibition can fire up that "national brainstorm" and "collaborative imagining" thing. But don't count on it. Art is X-rayed throughout, and the viewer, with the urging of the exhibition curator, Claire Perry, must look beyond mere surface images, beyond the artist's intent, beyond the aesthetic impact, beyond the materiality of the paint, stone, or plaster. And what's beyond the fringe? More sophisticated (or should that be sophistical?), "deeper," and usually ominous implications about America's myriad shortcomings in the 19th century. Read more ..


Book Reviews

Design Your Life, Change the World: The Social Entrepreneurial Lifestyle

December 14th 2011

Book Covers - Design your life

Design Your Life, Change the World: Your Path as a Social Entrepreneur. Michael Gordon. 2011.

A new e-book written by a University of Michigan business professor for individuals and companies looking to make the world a better place is available at no cost on the Internet. "Design Your Life, Change the World: Your Path as a Social Entrepreneur," written by Michael Gordon, can be downloaded free of charge here.  
 
"I hope to show readers, as I hope to show my students each day, that you don't have to make a choice between making a living and making the world a better place. The same applies to organizations and business," said Gordon, the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Business Information Technology at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. According to a release, Gordon explained, "In recent months the discontent with the financial crisis and business as usual has caused students to question the meaning and validity of a traditional business education. This ties in with my work over the past decade, where I've thought about two questions."

According to Gordon, those questions are: 1) How can organizations best address important societal problems such as poverty, inadequate health care, subpar education and an unhealthy planet? and 2) What's the best advice for students who want to address these issues and lead lives of relative comfort?

"This book tries to answer these questions," Gordon said. "Remarkable organizations are pretty closely linked to remarkable people—people whose clear vision, passion and skills at getting things done give life to ideas that truly make a difference." Read more ..


The Musical Edge

Music Is The World

December 13th 2011

Jewish Topics - Klezmer (credit: Mitaskim)
credit: Mistakim

While I’m mostly inclined to listen to what is called “classical music,” upon occasion other musical genres have proven enticing and powerful. I grew up with classical music, but along the way, a few musicians not necessarily in that category have impinged their way onto my consciousness. I will humbly offer up a few of their names to make my point that what makes music great is not necessarily its genre.

Foremost among them was Giora Feidman, the greatest of the Klezmer musicians. The first time I heard him was in a small synagogue as the result of an invitation by an old friend, Marshall Levy, an amateur clarinetist and magician who said I just had to hear Giora.

As we sat on small uncomfortable wooden chairs, and I was intent on the stage, from behind me came this most haunting song being played on a clarinet.

Then this almost Charlie Chaplain-like figure strolled down the aisle, and my neck craned as he sauntered past me, clarinet in his mouth, and his arms holding the rest of the instrument on high. As he mounted the stage, he was playing Dixieland and Gershwin. Then he switched to “Jewish” music—you could hear those ancient tunes from Safed as if you were there. He also played Jazz, even cool Jazz. He was much better than Benny Goodman, who was his obvious inspiration. I didn’t know the clarinet was capable of such grand music. Read more ..


Film News

Angelina Jolie Makes Directorial Debut with 'In The Land of Blood and Honey'

December 13th 2011

Film - Angelina Jolie

American movie star Angelina Jolie is making her directorial debut with a film set during Bosnia's civil war in the 1990s. In an exclusive interview with VOA's Bosnian service, Jolie says the message of the film, titled In the Land of Blood and Honey, is one of tolerance and understanding.

Angelina Jolie is used to being in front of the camera. But for her latest project, the Academy Award-winning actress stepped behind it... and into the brutality of wartime Bosnia.

"The more I learned about it and the more I read about it, the more angry I got about the lack of intervention," Jolie says,  "the more emotional I was about the violence against women. And I wanted to do a film that would help to look into the relationships between not just a couple, but also sisters, and fathers and sons, and mothers and children."

Jolie wrote as well as directed In the Land of Blood and Honey. It is a love story between a Muslim woman and a Serb man during Bosnia-Herzogovina's bloody, three-year ethnic conflict. Jolie says she hopes the film sparks discussion about the war and Bosnia's continued struggle since the 1995 peace agreement.

"I want people to remember Bosnia, and I want them to remember what happened, and I want them to pay respect to all of the people who survived, and today, to remember that this country still has so much healing to do,” she explains.

As a United Nations goodwill ambassador, the mother of six and partner to Brad Pitt often brings her influence as an actress to global issues. But this time is different. "This film is the first time that these worlds have collided for me," Jolie says, "so this film means more to me than any film I’ve ever made." Read more ..


Book Review

Leningrad: The Epic Seige that broke Hitler's Back

December 13th 2011

Book Covers - Leningrad epic

Leningrad: The Epic Siege of World War II, 1941-1944. Anna Reid. Walker & Co. 2011. 512 pages.

Not since Harrison Salisbury’s book The 900 Days appeared in 1969, has an English-language book devoted to the German siege of Leningrad (now renamed back to St. Petersburg) appeared. The longest blockade in recorded history, it consumed 1.5 million people, half of them civilians, many of them children. In merciless, unvarnished detail, Anna Reid’s Leningrad is filled with searing images of starvation, cannibalism, corruption and death in that most Westernized and striking of Russia’s cities.

The siege has essentially been overlooked in the West.  But then, too, we’ve ignored the enormous sacrifices of the Russian people and its military forces in defeating Nazi Germany and its allies.

Reid is a onetime Ukraine correspondent for The Economist and Daily Telegraph, and a journalist who holds an advanced degree in Russian studies.  The heart of her book is the memoirs, archives, letters and diaries of people who lived through the siege.  Her heartbreaking and angry version does not spare the vicious German invaders, though she rightly excoriates the Communist regime for waging a reign of terror against the city’s imaginary dissenters.

Trapped Leningraders would in time turn livid at the sight of well-fed Party bureaucrats while the rest were starving,  Reid is on target in wondering why sufficient food supplies were not stocked before the Germans invaded and surrounded the city.  She also faults Party officials for failing to order a general evacuation until it was far too late.  While admittedly difficult to measure public opinion, Reid’s reading of the diaries and memoirs “show Leningraders raging as much against the incompetence, callousness, hypocrisy and dishonesty of their own officials as against the distant, impersonal enemy.”

Yet Stalin’s purges and punishments never ceased. The NKVD and two of Stalin’s closest henchmen, Andrei Zhdanov (who once denigrated the great Leningrad poet Anna Akhmatova as “a cross between a nun and whore”) and Georgi Malenkov (who would become one of Stalin’s successors after the dictator’s death in March 1953 and then just as abruptly would be removed and sent, or so it is said, to Siberia for an alleged offense) carried out a reign of fear aimed at domestic “enemies.” Read more ..


Book Reviews

Pearl Harbor: FDR goes to War through Fire and Fog after a Day of Infamy

December 12th 2011

Book Covers - Pearl Harbor

Pearl Harbor: FDR leads the Nation into War. Steven M. Gillon. Basic Books. 2011. 248 pages.

One of the most difficult tasks when “thinking historically” is to avoid presentism and instead see the world as it looked at the time through the eyes of participants who acted on the basis of incomplete or inaccurate information and couldn’t know for sure how their decisions would turn out. Steven Gillon, a historian at the University of Oklahoma and author of (among other books) The Kennedy Assassination—24 Hours After, is up to it. He vividly recreates and interprets President Franklin Roosevelt’s activities in the 24 hours after the Japanese attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, famously designated by FDR as “a date which will live in infamy.”

Taking the long view, Gillon asserts that “Pearl Harbor was the defining event of the twentieth century” because “it changed the global balance of power, set the stage for the Cold War, and allowed the United States to emerge as a global superpower.” But no one could know that then. At the time, FDR needed to find out quickly what had happened (at a time when “intelligence was scarce and difficult to obtain”), then decide how to set America on the right path for its next step. The President, Gillon says, “was forced to make every major decision based on instinct and his own strategic sense of right and wrong. There were no instant surveys to guide his actions, no twenty-four-hour television coverage offering him a glimpse into the national mood. Making matters worse, the president’s advisors were anxious and divided.”

Compared to news of the Kennedy assassination or the 9/11 attacks, “news about Pearl Harbor spread slowly, trickling out over the radio in the afternoon.” The White House press corps included only about a dozen reporters, all of whom were off duty on that Sunday afternoon when the first word came through. FDR himself initially heard about it at 1:47 p.m. Thus began “perhaps the most well-documented day of the Roosevelt presidency,” written about by the people around Roosevelt and subsequently by several government investigations into how the disaster could have happened. Roosevelt retreated to his Oval Study (his private office, far more informal than the Oval Office), where, surrounded by the clutter of his books, stamp collection, ship models, and other miscellanea, he met with advisors, pieced together the shards of information that came in, and crafted the brief, 500-word war message that he would deliver the next day. Read more ..


Book Review

Blue Notes in Black and White: Photography and Jazz

December 8th 2011

Blue Notes in B/W

Blue Notes in Black and White: Photography and Jazz. Benjamin Cawthra. University of Chicago Press. 2011. 392 pages.

If you surf the Internet for articles about jazz and photography, you might find a few. But a recently-released book compiles accounts and rare expressive photos of jazz greats Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Billie Holiday and others.

Blue Notes in Black and White: Photography and Jazz, by Benjamin Cawthra, charts the development of jazz photography from the swing era of the 1930s to the rise of Black Nationalism and the civil rights movement in the 1960s. It also introduces the readers to some great jazz photographers, including Herb Snitzer, Francis Wolff, Roy DeCarava, William Claxton, Gjon Mili, William Gottlieb, Herman Leonard, and others.

I talked with the author, Benjamin Cawthra, who is Associate Professor of History at California State University, Fullerton, and Associate Director at the Center for Oral and Public History. He told me he worked on the book for more than 10 years to offer an account of the partnership between two of the 20th century’s innovative art forms: photography and jazz.

It all started when Cawthra was working at a museum at St. Louis, Missouri and had the brainstorm of doing an exhibition on jazz great Miles Davis, a native son of St. Louis area.

“It seemed that he’d never taken a bad picture, and so many photographers had taken his pictures,” noted Cawthra who was struck by some extraordinary images that were part of the exhibition. “So, when I went to do my dissertation at Washington University at St. Louis I was just thinking: where did these really great photographs come from? Why would they taken? What impact, if any, did they have at the time they were taken? And how they become such classic, iconic images and photographs of jazz musicians?”

Blue Notes in Black and White: Photography and Jazz recounts more racism stories related to jazz greats, including Davis. Miles Davis was performing at a club in New York. He was taking a break to escort a “pretty white girl named Judy” to a taxicab between sets. A white police officer told him to move along — to keep the sidewalk clear. Davis, who was famous at the time, explained to the situation to the officer, but it tuned into a scuffle.
Read more ..


Film Review

Blistering Barnacles! Tintin is coming to America

December 6th 2011

Film - Tintin

Academy Award-winning director Steven Spielberg is taking a chance but may work some magic with his new film, The Adventures of Tintin, as he introduces a European icon to American audiences on December 21. And he is stirring a little controversy as well. See video here.

The Adventures of Tintin, also known as The Adventures of Tintin: the Secret of the Unicorn, is based on a series of comics created by Belgian cartoonist Georges Remi in the 1920s. The Tintin character is the intrepid boy reporter in the strips that for fifty years entertained first Belgium and France through the Great Depression and into World War 2, and then in translation entertained many more in other languages. The Tintin strips are timeless stories of adventures that satirized Fascists and other bullies of the day with slapstick humor borrowed from Charlie Chaplin. But somehow, Tintin has never been a hit with Americans. But that could change: even soccer can be adopted and adapted by Americans. And director Spielberg is hoping that the success of the film in Europe, which premiered on October 22, will advance by word of mouth to the U.S.

Spielberg has chosen three stories written during the war years as the basis for his new film. Many Tintin fans think these three classics: The Crab with the Golden Claws, The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham’s Treasure, were the best that ever emerged from the series. It was in these that Hergé, which is how Georges Remi signed his works – mastered his drawing and storytelling, while also creating Tintin’s immortal companions Captain Haddock and Professor Calculus, as well as the Thompson Twins. Tintin's reach is worldwide. His adventures have been translated into more than 70 languages and appeared in more than 230 million books sold since 1930. Read more ..


Edge on Theatre

White Christmas is as Memorable on Stage as it is on Film

December 6th 2011

Film - White Christmas show girls

White Christmas: Producers: Paper Mill Playhouse (the play is based upon the Paramount Pictures 1954 film), Milburn N.J. Sets: Anna Louizos, Costumes: Carrie Robbins, Lighting Design: Ken Billington, Sound: Randy Hansen. Choreography; Randy Skinner. Directed by Marc Bruni.

The 1954 film White Christmas, starring Danny Kaye and Bing Crosby, has been a staple of the holiday season on television for years. In the film, Bing sings the title song on a 1944 European battlefield. Ten years go by for him and his buddy, Danny Kaye, and then true love finds them both as they stage a Christmas show to save their beloved wartime general’s New England hotel from bankruptcy. All’s well that ends well on Christmas Eve. There are trips to Florida, train rides, television appearances, hotel scenes, offices scenes and, of course, a lot of scenes set in Vermont.

How do you turn such a complicated 57-year-old movie into a stage play? How does anybody replace Bing Crosby?

So it was with a substantial amount of holiday trepidation that I went to see the new musical, White Christmas, at the Paper Mill Playhouse, a restored theater that sits alongside a lovely babbling brook in New Jersey. Their version of White Christmas featured a ridiculous plot, did not have Bing and was loaded with sleighs full of schmaltz.

In other words, it was just wonderful. Read more ..


Book Reviews

JFK Assassination Logic: Dispelling Persistent Conspiracies and Myths

December 4th 2011

Book Covers - JFK assassination logic

JFK Assassination Logic: How to Think about Claims of Conspiracy. John McAdams. Potomac Books. 2011. 328 pages.

Every now and then a JFK assassination book comes along that bristles with erudition and common sense, providing the reader with rational answers to anomalous pieces of evidence in the case that have been exaggerated beyond belief by bogus historians cashing in on the public’s desire for drama and intrigue.

In the 1970s, Priscilla Johnson McMillan’s Marina and Lee, a book which could be characterized as ‘Marina Oswald’s Memoirs, gave the American public an insight into the mind and character of JFK’s assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, an enigmatic young man who had remained a puzzle to the American people since the November 1963assassination.

In the 1980s, Jean Davison’s Oswald’s Game gave readers a logical explanation for the assassination: Oswald, a hero-worshipper of Fidel Castro and a wannabe revolutionary, had political motives and he likely acted out of a distorted sense of political idealism.

In the 1990s, Gerald Posner’s Case Closed, a well-written account of the assassination that debunked numerous conspiracy scenarios provided a refreshing antidote to Oliver Stone’s movie about the assassination, JFK. Stone’s largely fictional drama had been released in cinemas in the early 1990s. Its central character was Jim Garrison, the New Orleans District Attorney who accused the CIA of Kennedy’s murder. His false history of the assassination had a corrosive effect on a new generation’s ability to understand this important event in U.S. history. Fortunately, another corrective to the movie came in 1998 with the publication of Patricia Lambert’s excellent book False Witness, which firmly exposed Garrison as a charlatan and a fraud. Read more ..


Book Reviews

A German Generation: Blind Men in a Nazi Lunatic Asylum

December 4th 2011

Europe Topics - Nazi girl
World War II-era Hitler Youth poster

A German Generation: An Experiential History of the Twentieth Century. Thomas A. Kohut. (Yale, 2011).

Reviewing Ian Kershaw’s The End: The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler’s German, 1944-45 in the New York Times, James J. Sheehan wondered why everyday Germans, facing imminent defeat in mid-1945, “continued to obey a government that had nothing left to offer them but death and destruction.” That’s not an easy question. Why did they and their fellow Germans blindly follow murderers and thugs they had once hailed and faithfully served? Could it have been simply obedience to leaders? Or was it, Thomas A. Kohut asks, a tribal tendency to “belong and, consequently to exclude?” Kohut, professor of history at Williams College and author of Wilhelm II and the Germans: A Study in Leadership, has no definitive answer –nor does the vast literature about the subject. The virtue of this book is that he does try to see that blood-spattered era through the eyes of individuals, rather than politicians, generals and others justifying what they did and didn’t do.

A partial if still unsatisfying answer may nonetheless lie in Kohut’s fifteen-year quest to collect sixty-two oral histories of “ordinary” Germans, many of them composites, a method to which some may object. He explains that while the sixty-two “cannot be equated with an entire generation” they do show “significant characteristics of the generation to which they belong, at times to a pronounced degree.” Kohut tells us his father was a Viennese Jew, a fact which would have meant his death had he not fled to the U.S. in 1938, a detail which may explain his remark, “I do not particularly like the interviewees.” It’s hard to know when and if personal feelings and ideology cloud a scholar’s view. Whatever the truth, his conclusions have been corroborated by many scholars, few of whom “liked” the people they wrote about.

All sixty-two were German Protestants, all born before World War I, all members of German youth movements. They were happy that the Nazis won the January 1933 election and were overwhelmingly supportive for most of the following years as fervent Nazis. One of his interviewees hailed the Anschluss with Austria in 1938 and proudly served in the military. Another spoke of the good life until it all came crashing down with the arrival of devastating bombing raids and allied armies from east and west. Once the war ended they needed to rationalize their behavior, but were blindsided when their adult children of the 1968 generation wanted to know why they had so enthusiastically favored so brutal a regime. Read more ..


Book Reviews

The Glass Harmonica: Intriguing Novel with Historical Texture

December 3rd 2011

Book Covers - The Glass Harmonica Sensualists Tale

The Glass Harmonica: A Sensualist's Tale. Dorothee Kocks. Publish America. 2011. 243 pages.

Dorothee Kocks  has had an intriguing career. A graduate of the University of Chicago, she went on to pursue a doctorate in American Civilization in the decidedly different climate of Brown (where our paths crossed almost a quarter-century ago). She got a tenure-track job at the University of Utah, proceeding to publish a richly suggestive piece of scholarship, Dream a Little: Land and Social Justice in in Modern America (California, 2000). Then she ditched her teaching post, took up the accordion, and began traveling widely, supporting herself with odd jobs. Last year, she made a foray into fiction by publishing her first novel, The Glass Harmonica: A Sensualist's Tale, as an e-book with a New Zealand-based publisher. It has just been published in a print edition.

Kocks's unusual vocational trajectory is worth tracing here, because The Glass Harmonica is an unusual book. A work of historical fiction that bridges the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, it also sprawls across Europe and North America. Napoleon Bonaparte makes a cameo appearance, but its core is a love story between a commoner Corsican musician, Chjara Valle, and an entrepreneurial American purveyor of erotica, Henry Garland. The two lovers encounter any number of obstacles -- principally in the form of spiteful people on either side of the Atlantic -- but nevertheless manage to build a life together,  one animated by the mysteriously alluring (and thus to many threatening) glass harmonica, a musical instrument which enjoyed a vogue in the age of its inventor, Benjamin Franklin.

Such a summary makes the book seem simpler than it is. For one thing, The Glass Harmonica is rich with historical texture. Brimming with research, it vividly recreates any number of subcultures, ranging from continental drawing-room entertainments to the feverish intensity of revivial meetings. As one might expect of a writer who has spent much of her life, and much of her work, exploring the concept of place, Kocks also evokes varied geographies -- urban Paris and Philadelphia, rural upstate New York, coastal New England;  et. al. An afterword limns her sources and provides set of footnotes worth studying for their own sake.

Kocks also boldly trespasses over contemporary convention in realistic fiction, eschewing the spare, lean quality of modern prose in favor of lush, omniscient narration. "On the morning Chjara Valle quickened in her mother's womb, the sun reached its red fingers over the Mediterranean Sea," the novel opens. The book is engorged with such biological/anthropomorphic motifs. Read more ..


Film Review

'My Week with Marilyn' Captures Icon's Volatility

November 29th 2011

Film - My Week with Marilyn

In the summer of 1956, Hollywood legend Marilyn Monroe joined the equally iconic British actor, Laurence Olivier, to film “The Prince and the Showgirl” in London. 

"My Week with Marilyn" is based on Colin Clark’s account of that shoot and the week he spent with the star. Directed by Simon Curtis, the film portrays Monroe through the eyes of the young English aristocrat, who was working on a film set for the first time.

In the film, Clark comes upon the superstar in the bath tub. No one, especially not Clark, expected to get that close to Monroe. But during filming, Monroe befriended Clark and he became a confidante. For Clark, Monroe was his first love.

In the film, Monroe is a fragile and troubled sex symbol. Her stardom and new marriage, to playwright Arthur Miller, do little to ease her loneliness and insecurity.

Michelle Williams interprets the superstar’s volatility with verve and sensitivity. The film’s excellent editing enhances Williams’ portrayal of Monroe.

“I hope that it adds, that it fills out the impression of Marilyn Monroe," Williams says, "and that she is allowed, through me or through her own presence, to expand and that there are certain things you may not have realized about her - her wit, her empathy, her deep desire to be taken seriously as an artist.”

According to Clark's book, the superstar hoped to gain respect by playing alongside Olivier in "The Prince and the Showgirl." But the rapport between the effervescent Monroe and the highbrow Olivier was difficult. During filming, their relationship broke down and the movie flopped. In "My Week with Marilyn," actor Kenneth Branagh's Sir Lawrence is stodgy, impatient and judgmental. Read more ..


Book Essay

Kissinger's "Diplomatic" Review of John Gaddis's Latest Book

November 28th 2011

Book Covers - George F Kennan:An American Life by John Geddis

George F. Kennan: An American Life. John Gaddis. Allen Lane Publishers. 2011. 800 pages.

“The reader should know,” writes Henry Kissinger in his lengthy coronation of John Lewis Gaddis’s “magisterial” biography of the American foreign-policy seer and remonstrant George Kennan in the November 13 New York Times Book Review, “that for the past decade, I have occasionally met with the students of the Grand Strategy seminar John Gaddis conducts at Yale and that we encounter each other on social occasions from time to time.”

What the reader should also know (and what Times editors should have considered) is that this disclosure is roughly the equivalent of George W. Bush’s informing the public that he and Tony Blair have had “a full and frank exchange of views about matters of mutual concern.” A full disclosure by Kissinger would have acknowledged that no one has worked longer and harder than Gaddis since 2001 to help Kissinger justify and polish his controversial legacy.

Kissinger’s review offers insight and information—his own, more than Gaddis’s—and Kennan, in my view and that of others who’ve written about him, certainly deserves the respect both men are showing him. What rankles here is that, without being told, we’re watching the latest pas de deux in a long ballet between the once-powerful Kissinger and the power-seeking Gaddis:

The same Kissinger who writes that Gaddis’s George F. Kennan: An American Life is “as close to the final word as possible on one of the most important, complex, moving, challenging, and exasperating American public servants” once asked Gaddis to write his own biography. Read more ..


Book Reviews

Railroaded: Transcontinental Rails and Robber Barons

November 27th 2011

Book Covers - Railroaded

Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America. Richard White. W.W. Norton. 2011. 660 pages.

The construction of the transcontinental railroads following the Civil War is often celebrated as the triumph of American business and industry, with the support of government, unifying the country and fostering the growth of national markets. In Railroaded, Richard White, the Margaret Byrne Professor of American History at Stanford University and one of the founding scholars of the New Western History, challenges this assumption; concluding that Americans were “railroaded” in the late nineteenth century by finance capitalists into supporting the construction of a transportation system which was not based upon the economic needs of the western United States.

Refuting the creative destruction model of entrepreneurial capitalism employed by Joseph Schumpeter, White questions the assertion that the initial economic chaos of the transcontinentals paved the way for long term progress. In this important piece of scholarship, White doubts whether the farm and business failures, dispossession of Native populations, and the environmental destruction wrought by the transcontinentals were harbingers of progress. In a time when the achievements of corporate America are under great scrutiny, White’s history merits careful reading and consideration.

The construction of the transcontinental railroads following the Civil War is often celebrated as the triumph of American business and industry, with the support of government, unifying the country and fostering the growth of national markets. In Railroaded, Richard White, the Margaret Byrne Professor of American History at Stanford University and one of the founding scholars of the New Western History, challenges this assumption; concluding that Americans were “railroaded” in the late nineteenth century by finance capitalists into supporting the construction of a transportation system which was not based upon the economic needs of the western United States. Read more ..


Book Reviews

I Want My TV: Whither goest MTV there Shalt Also Go Facebook

November 27th 2011

Book Topics - I want my tv

I Want My TV: The Uncensored History of the Music Video Revolution. Craig Marks and Ron Tannenbaum. Dutton. 2011. 608 pages.

Before there was Facebook, before there were iPhones, there was MTV. After an unprepossessing launch in 1981, the cable network became a powerful force in American popular culture, exerting a much-noted impact not only on the music and television industries, but also on film, fashion, and even politics. Some of the attention MTV got was celebratory; some of it highly critical (from a variety of directions). About the only thing more striking than the network's dramatic impact is the degree it has receded since its first decade of cultural dominance. So the time seems right for an assessment of its trajectory.

Former Billboard editor Craig Marks and music journalist Rob Tannenbaum make a shrewd choice in rending the MTV story as an oral history, taking a page from Live from New York, the 2003 Tom Shales/James Andrew Miller history of Saturday Night Live (and before that, George Plimpton's ground-breaking 1982 biography of Edie Sedgewick, Edie). Tannenbaum and Craig conducted hundreds of interviews that that they arrange in a kaleidoscopic array of voices that include corporate executives, performers, video directors, and so-called "VJs" like Martha Quinn and Mark Goodman. Read more ..


The Way We Are

They Still Want a Ring

November 23rd 2011

Social Topics - Sullen Woman

In a fawn-colored silk dress and up-do, a contemplative young woman sips champagne while a bridal bouquet flies over her head. As other never-married wedding-goers readily will detect, she's scrupulously ignoring this ritual reminder of an unrealized longing for marriage.

This is the photograph of Kate Bolick, 39, that runs alongside her cover story, "All the Single Ladies," in the November edition of The Atlantic. Beginning with that picture, her piece captures the anxiety of many single women as the age of first marriage continues to climb.

Those who always expected to be married by now are wondering whether to keep hoping for marriage, how to find fulfillment without it, and why relationships with men these days can be so frustrating. Rather than pointing to answers for these important questions, however, Bolick's article leads to a dead end of further disappointment and confusion. Read more ..


Ancient Literature

New Interpretation of Ancient Mayan Texts opens Windows to Ancient Worlds

November 22nd 2011

Archaeology Topics - Maya Dresden codex
Page 46 of the Forstemann version of the Dresden Codex

By presenting a new interpretation of a Maya hieroglyphic verb, Gerardo Aldana, associate professor of Chicana and Chicano Studies at University of California/Santa Barbara, has revised the understanding of one of the longest-studied texts in Maya archaeology. Aldana's research appears in his new book, Tying Headbands or Venus Appearing: New Translations of k'al, the Dresden Codex Venus Pages and Classic Period Royal 'Binding' Rituals (Archaeopress, 2011).

According to Aldana, at the end of the 19th century, the German philologist Ernst Forstemann discovered the basis of the modern interpretation of a Venus table in the 13th-century Maya manuscript known as the Dresden Codex.

The six-page Venus table is an almanac dedicated to tracking the observable phases of the planet Venus. Forstemann's interpretation laid the groundwork for academic and popular 20th-century characterizations of the Maya as "obsessed" with astronomy and time. While scholars have added to his interpretation over the next 100 years, all have followed the basic model resulting from his work. Read more ..


Film News

'Saigon Electric' Bridges Old, New Vietnam Through Dance

November 22nd 2011

Vietnam Topics - Saigon Dance

The clash and combination of old and new Vietnam are at the heart of Saigon Electric, a new film by writer-director Stephane Gauger that recently won the Best Narrative Feature Award at the Philadelphia Asian Film Festival.

The movie follows a local hip hop dance crew called Saigon Fresh as it challenges the national champions, North Killaz from Hanoi, for a chance to compete internationally in South Korea. At the center of the story is an unlikely friendship between the rebellious hip hop dancer Kim and shy Mai, a traditional ribbon dancer who left her home in the countryside to pursue her dreams in the big city.

Gauger says the contrast is intentional.“That theme, the yin and the yang, of having two friends, one being a traditional dancer, and one being a hip hop dancer, is addressing some of the things I think are important about Vietnam now, which is a changing society,” he said. “What’s happening in Vietnam is that the new modernization is, in my mind, endangering the old traditions.” Read more ..


Film News

EU Blocks Release of Afghan Documentary

November 21st 2011

Afghan Topics - Afgan Women in Burka

The European Union has sparked controversy by deciding not to release a documentary on women prisoners in Afghanistan. Exploring the phenomenon of "moral crimes," the film underscores the harsh realities facing Afghan women, despite legislation to protect their rights.

Commissioned by the European Union, the documentary tells the harrowing stories of two women locked in Afghanistan's jails for so-called "moral crimes." According to reports, one is a rape victim. Another ran away from a husband who beat her.

But the EU has not released the documentary. The Associated Press news agency cites an email sent by an EU official raising concerns about the women's safety, but also about Europe's relations with Afghan justice institutions. Michael Mann, chief spokesman for European foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, rejects suggestions that politics played a role. The only worry, he says, is that the women portrayed in the documentary are protected. "Any suggestion that I've read where somehow [we're] trying to prevent the plight of women reaching the public domain is absolute nonsense, that's the whole idea of us commissioning the film in the first place, we want to draw attention to the plight of these women," said Mann. Read more ..


Book Essay

Terrorists in Love: Getting to the Heart of Islamists

November 21st 2011

Book Covers - Terrorists in love

How does a young man become transformed from a law-abiding middle-class citizen into a terrorist? Ken Ballen, a former federal prosecutor, spent five years trying to find answers to that question. Terrorists in Love: The Real Lives of Islamic Radicals examines why young people got involved in radicalism and then - for many of them - how they left.

It started as a research project, says Ballen, founder and president of Terror-Free Tomorrow. When his group conducted public opinion polls across the Muslim world, Ballen traveled extensively and had a chance to meet young radicals.

“What was remarkable was how many people did open up to me," Ballen says. "They really shared their lives with me, how they got involved in radicalism and then - for many of them - how they left, which I think is almost as important as how they got first involved.”

Out of 100 or so radicals he interviewed, Ballen focused on six in his book.

“You can’t pick six people and say that they represent all the motives of all radicals everywhere," he says. "They do not. But I think they were fairly representative of the different ways that people got involved in this movement.”

What ties the stories together, Ballen says, is reflected in the book’s title, Terrorists in Love. Read more ..


The Way We Are

Managing a Bully

November 21st 2011

Social Topics - Bullying

I was once bullied by a jerk who wanted to show off in front of his friends. He took a chair from me during school when I was sitting down and I fell on the floor. I said to my friends, "That guy's an idiot" and he heard me. He started to hit and kick me and then walked away. I didn't hit him back because he was bigger and older than me.

The book Taking the Bully by the Horns, by Kathy Noll, explains why bullies bully. Now I understand that he bothered me because he felt really small inside and I was an easy target because I was new in the school. People used to make fun of him because of his grades and he probably felt bad about himself and decided to take it out on other people.

A bully picks on somebody so that he can take his anger about feeling bad about himself out on somebody else. He picks somebody smaller than him without too many friends. Somebody he thinks won't tell anybody. Read more ..


Edge on Art

May One Thousand Chinese Papercuts Bloom

November 14th 2011

China Topics - Chinese cut out

Scholarly gems are often found by sifting through dusty archives in foreign lands thousands of miles away. But sometimes they're discovered just by doing some office cleaning on campus.

That's what happened recently at the Center for Chinese Studies at the University of Michigan. Staffers who were tidying up a storage room in Ann Arbor found a stunning collection of rare propaganda papercut images from the Cultural Revolution---a period of massive political upheaval in China that began in 1966 and lasted about a decade.

"Long live the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution!" says the slogan on the flag that features the profile of the late Chinese leader Mao Zedong. The image is one of 15 papercuts recently discovered in a storage area for the Center for Chinese Studies, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

With incredible detail, the long-forgotten papercuts portray the euphoria and zeal of the era as well as the violence and destruction that left the Chinese economy in shambles. The beautifully preserved poster-size images are painstakingly cut out of red paper in the tradition of the age-old Chinese handicraft, more commonly used to make decorations for weddings, Lunar New Year celebrations and other festivities. Read more ..


The Edge of Pollution

Plastics in Oceans are More Damaging Than Climate Change

November 14th 2011

Energy / Environment - Ocean scene

Once upon a time, the oceans of our planet were beautifully clean.  Not any more.  Captain Charles Moore calls this 'the age of plastic.'

“Between 250 and 300 million tons of plastic are produced every year," said Capt. Moore. "To get that into terms you can understand, every two years we make enough plastic to be the equivalent of the weight of the 7 billion people on earth.” In his new book, Plastic Ocean, Moore says less than five percent of all plastic is recycled and nearly three percent of world production is dumped into the ocean. That debris kills millions of sea creatures every year.

“We know over 100,000 albatross chicks are dying every year with their stomachs full of plastic; we have evidence that about 100,000 marine mammals die every year being tangled in plastic," he said. Read more ..


Book Reviews

We Meant Well: Iraq Really Ends When we Really Leave

November 13th 2011

Book Covers - We Meant Well

We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. Peter Van Buren. Metropolitan Books. 2011. 288 pages.

This book by a State Department insider and eyewitness turned whistle-blower is about our misadventures in Iraq. Andrew Bacevich, the prescient author of the recently published Washington Rules, shrewdly noted that years after the self-serving memoirs (mainly ghost-written) by the major actors in the invasion and occupation “are consigned to some landfill,” Peter Van Buren’s sensible, funny, and ultimately sad portrait of failed nation-building will need to be resurrected and read and re-read, especially in our schools and media offices, the latter because so many publications and TV commentators were cheerleaders for the invasion.

We Meant Well, both title and concept, is how pro-war policymakers and pundits rationalized the bloodshed and chaos by doing good things for post-Saddam Iraqis. Largely ignorant of Iraq’s history, culture, and language, Washington’s elite foreign policy circles actually believed the con men and living room warriors who conjured up visions of WMDs and of spreading America’s economic empire by war and thereby transforming the country into a fair and open society. Van Buren says he is currently being investigated by the State Department; his supervisor was asked to tell him—“just like a gangster movie”—that a “senior Department person” was angry at the publication of this book and had opened an investigation.

Van Buren had served as a Foreign Service Officer for more than twenty years and was appointed head of a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) on a Forward Operating Base (FOB) for a one-year stint in 2009. These military bases, some as large as cities, were scattered throughout Iraq with “Burger Kings, samba clubs, Turkish hookah bars and swimming pools.” Read more ..


Book Reviews

The Marriage Plot is an Interesting Failure as a Novel

November 7th 2011

Book Covers - The marriage plot

The Marriage Plot. Jeffrey Eugenides. Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2011. 416 pages.

Is it possible to write a successful novel with unappealing characters? I don't mean a novel in which a protagonist is repellent in an avowedly provocative way, like the unnamed narrator of Fyodor Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground (1864). I mean people who it appears an author really wants us to like, but who we find tiresome. This is the question I found myself asking while reading Jeffrey Eugenides's latest novel, The Marriage Plot. My answer, finally, was no: you can't really write a compelling novel this way. But as failures go, his is an interesting one.

One reason: Eugenides is a virtuoso writer with an extraordinary capacity to render an array of topics with great authority and clarity. In this regard, he's is sort of like Jonathan Franzen with a warmer heart. Eugenides showed such brio in his multi-generational saga Middlesex (2002), and he does it again here. Whether the subject at hand are are the mating habits of the intelligentsia, the pharmacology of mental illness, or the labor force of Mother Teresa's mission in Calcutta, Eugenides renders the details of subcultures with a sense of verisimilitude that impresses and informs. He has a wonderful sense of history, and in some subjects, his talents are dazzling.

I can't think of another writer who can talk about religion with the unselfconscious ease he does, for instance. And his command of literary theory, in particular the 1980s mania for poststructuralism, is so sure that he can weave it in as a subtext for a novel that's also a metacommentary on bourgeois fiction of the 19th century. The ending of the novel in particular a delightfully clever. Read more ..


Significant Events

Investigative Author Edwin Black Headlined Conference, Received First 'Moral Courage' Award

October 30th 2011

Contributors / Staff - Edwin Black
Edwin Black

An extraordinary conference designed to recognize and promote “moral courage” convened in San Diego late in October. The Initiative for Moral Courage held its first annual conference on the campuses of San Diego State University and California State University at San Marcos. The conference topics of the inaugural session focused on various twentieth century genocides, authors who have exposed them, and individuals who stood up to them against the odds. Hence, the salute to moral courage, and the awards given to carefully selected recipients.

To salute brave survivors and chroniclers, this year’s conference featured presentations by award-winning author and investigative journalist Edwin Black on the connection between American and Nazi eugenics and Richard G. Hovannisian on the Armenian genocide orchestrated by the Turks. It also covered a host of other mass murders, from Bosnia-Herzegovina to Rwanda to Cambodia.

The first major event was on October 29 and included a graphic presentation of panels titled “The Rescuers.” This was an exhibition of photographs and extraordinary stories from the Holocaust, and the genocides that occurred in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Rwanda, and Cambodia. Remarkable stories emerged of ordinary heroes who resisted overwhelming tides of prejudice and violence and risked their lives saving people from enemy groups. It helps to understand the presence of rescue behavior during genocide or mass violence. The exhibition’s rationale was to design ways to build in protective measures against this type of violence

Then, on October 30, an afternoon series explored “Genocides Past and Present.” Opening the day was award-winning investigative author Edwin Black, whose book War Against the Weak has changed the face and course of society’s understanding of the dark links between American and Nazi eugenics. Based on selective breeding of humans, eugenics began in laboratories in the U.S. but ended in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. War Against the Weak is described by the program as “the gripping chronicle documenting how American corporate philanthropies launched a national campaign of ethnic cleansing in the United States, and helped found and fund the Nazi eugenics of Hitler and Mengele. Winner of the Best Book of the Year, International Human Rights.” Black demonstrated moral courage in standing up to the power of the Carnegie Institution and Rockefeller Foundation, which funded, orchestrated, and inflicted both American and Nazi eugenics.

Author Black commented, “In an era of increasing focus on political expediency, the effort to revive and foster the notion of moral courage is sorely needed.” He credited the vision of organizer Jackie Gmach in bringing the effort to national attention. Read more ..


Film Review

The Way: A Film pilgrimage to the Shrine of Self-Esteem

October 27th 2011

Film - The Way

The Way. Directed by Emilio Estevez. Starring: Martin Sheen, Yorick Van Wageningen, James Nesbitt, Deborah Kara Unger. Length: 121 mins.


In case you were worried, the New York Times review of Emilio Estevez’s The Way will reassure you that "This is not an ‘inspirational film’ in the usual, syrupy sense." Phew! Dodged a bullet there, didn’t we? One can well imagine that the "syrupy" sort of inspirational film would be offensive to the sensibility that these days informs the arts pages as well as the other pages of The New York Times. But, then, the quotation marks around "inspirational film" seem to be meant to imply — I can’t think what else they are doing there — that there is no such thing as an inspirational film anyway: only the kind that strives to be inspirational and fails. Inspiring The New York Times, we may as well admit, is something probably better not even attempted.

Mr. Estevez’s film, for which he also wrote the screenplay, is about a medieval pilgrimage — the one to Santiago de Compostela in Spain — which is still made by thousands of pilgrims today. Many, if not most, do so in a spirit of Catholic piety, but The Way is not interested in them. Fortunately, as the Times reviewer writes, "none of these people are [sic] overtly finding God on this trek." How about covertly finding God? He doesn’t know, but I guess that that would be OK. "The beauty of the movie, in fact, is that Mr. Estevez does not make explicit what any of them find, beyond friendship. He lets these four fine actors convey that true personal transformations are not announced with fanfare, but happen internally." So how do we know that they happen at all? Forget fanfares, where is the beauty in not knowing something? Read more ..


Book Review

The Big Scrum: Bully Bully to Teddy Roosevelt for Saving American Football

October 27th 2011

Book Covers - the big scrum

The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football. John J. Miller. Harper, 2011.

Long, long ago—before the Big Ten had 12 teams and the Big Twelve had 10; back when Knute Rockne was still learning to drop-kick—college football was in crisis. The crisis had many parts: already professionalism and commercialism had made inroads into the supposedly “amateur” game. Players were getting money and perks, coaches were being overpaid (in 1905 Bill Reid, Harvard’s coach, made more than any professor on campus and almost as much as President Charles William Eliot), and rules about everything from how the game could be played to player eligibility ranged from ill-defined to non-existent. Six-year varsity careers were not unheard of.

Sometimes those careers were compiled at several schools. In 1896 the great Fielding Yost, enrolled West Virginia University, transferred to Lafayette in time to help the Leopards snap the University of Pennsylvania’s 36-game winning streak, then transferred right back.

The worst aspect of the crisis—because it was the most public and most dramatic—was the game’s increasingly violent character, evidenced by the growing number of players seriously injured or even killed on the field. As football had evolved from its beginnings (the game considered to be the first intercollegiate contest, between Princeton and Rutgers, took place in 1869) as a kind of combination of soccer and rugby, it was increasingly characterized by “mass play,” most notably the infamous “flying wedge.” Even when played within the “rules” of the time, it was a bloody affair. And with players crowded together, battling back and forth on a very small part of the field, opportunities for punching, kicking, biting, and other activities outside the rules were numerous—and exploited. Read more ..


Book Reviews

Religion in America: Recounting where Church and Politics Meet

October 27th 2011

Book Covers - religion in america

Religion in America: A Political History. Denis Lacorne. Columbia, 2011. 170 pages.

This little book manages to do a lot in the space of 170 pages. First published in France in 2007, with an evocative introduction by the late Tony Judt, it surveys its subject with grace and insight, as well as a lot of information.

Lacorne's point of departure in conceptualizing religious history rests on the work of John Murrin, who observed that in the United States "the constitutional roof" was built before the "national walls." As Lacorne is well aware, this assertion is contestable, particularly by those -- from Alexis de Tocqueville to Samuel Huntington, among others -- who have argued that American religious culture, like many other kinds, was well in place by the time of the American Revolution.

But an important dimension of this even-handed study is an attempt to balance what he plausibly sees as too much emphasis on the Puritan roots and influence in American society. For Lacorne, a separate strand of U.S. evangelicalism has also been part of the picture. So has, at least as importantly, a largely secular one centered in the thought and legacy of the Founding Fathers. This latter one, whose institutional locus has been the Supreme Court, has been decisive, in his (generally approving) view.

This little book manages to do a lot in the space of 170 pages. First published in France in 2007, with an evocative introduction by the late Tony Judt, it surveys its subject with grace and insight, as well as a lot of information.

Lacorne's point of departure in conceptualizing religious history rests on the work of John Murrin, who observed that in the United States "the constitutional roof" was built before the "national walls." As Lacorne is well aware, this assertion is contestable, particularly by those -- from Alexis de Tocqueville to Samuel Huntington, among others -- who have argued that American religious culture, like many other kinds, was well in place by the time of the American Revolution. Read more ..


American Songbook

The Spirit of Orchestral Mastermind Charles Stepney Lives on in Chicago

October 24th 2011

Art Topics - charles stepney

There is still a vibrancy and creativity of American music of the 1960s and 70s that has much to offer those who remember those days, as well as those inheriting the unique American penchant for syncretism in music styles. Certainly, the merging of jazz, gospel, funk, and rock is what distinguishes the 1970s as the U.S. emerged from days of the Civil Rights movement and the war in Vietnam. Definitions of what qualified as ‘Black’ music and ‘White’ music appeared to become fuzzier as young people breathed easier (without the Draft dangling over their heads) and could go to the dance floor and groove to tunes by Earth Wind and Fire, Stevie Wonder (imported from Saginaw, Michigan), Sly and the Family Stone, Parliament and Funkadelic.

But who was one of the masterminds? Who was it that helped shape the behind the microphone? The tunes are there to be heard on your MP3 player, YouTube, Songza, or even on an LP as God Himself intended those tunes to be heard. His name is Charles Stepney. You won’t hear his voice on those recordings, but you can feel his spirit. It lives. Read more ..


Author Tours

Author Edwin Black Keynotes Peace Week in Tampa Bay

October 20th 2011

Contributors / Staff - Edwin Black

Award-winning author and investigative journalist Edwin Black keynoted Peace Week, a multi-day conference organized by Pasco-Hernando Community College in association with the St. Petersburg Times. The four-campus two-county conference was free and open to the public beginning October 17. It concludes October 24. The annual event seeks to promote worldwide peace through historical exploration, artistic works, and interfaith and intercommunal outreach.

Peace Week co-founders, professors Karen Davis and Mike Sadusky, described the goals of the event in an open letter to the college community, "PHCC proudly hosts Peace Week each year to recognize that peace is not simply the absence of war, but a constantly changing and fragile ideology that can be threatened if people are not given the opportunity to express themselves and connect with one another. We must find understanding and balance in a social climate that increases in culturally diversity and technological advances alongside growing volatility, political pressures and global perspective each day." This year's theme is "Imagine the possibilities of peace."

Films, music, guest lectures, drum circles, Buddhist mandalas, art projects and yoga classes are all part of the celebration that ends on October 24. Speakers will rotate on each of the campuses while their presentations will be telecast on each of the other campuses.

Besides Black, keynote speakers at Peace Week include Eva Mozes Kor, a Holocaust survivor and forgiveness advocate who brought people to tears at last year's event. Kor is a survivor of inhuman medical experiments conducted by the infamous Dr. Mengele at the Auschwitz death camp. Also speaking is Dr. Bernard Lafayette, a civil rights activist who worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In addition, the conference will be hear sacred and Broadway songs by Cantor Deborah Jacobson, of Temple Ahavat Shalom in Palm Harbor, and her daughter Maya Jacobson. Author Black, who previewed the performance, commented, "the Jacobsons' delivery is nothing short of angelic."

Black also appeared at other venues in the Tampa FL during the conference, giving lectures on the inter-relationship of petropolitics and U.S. corporate complicity with Nazism and genocide in the World War II era. Read more ..


Book Review

Color in the Classroom: How Americans learned about Race

October 20th 2011

Book Covers - Color in the classroom

Color in the Classroom: How American Schools Taught Race. Zoe Burkholder. Oxford University Press. 2011. 264 pages.

In the liberal imagination -- and in more than a little Civil Rights scholarship -- the story of race relations in the first half of the twentieth century is a long arc that bends toward justice. It is a progressive tale, one in which belief in the power of ideas to shape society gets battered, but ultimately affirmed, as evidenced by the most cherished dimensions of the welfare state, among them the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But for many, the keystone of this arch is the Supreme Court Decision of Brown v. Board (1954), upon which rested hopes for future generations.

One might think, then, that a chronicle of racial education in this half-century would be one of ascent to this plateau. But for Zoe Burkholder, professor of education at Montclair State University, Brown signifies a lost opportunity, a fork in a road that led away from meaningfully grappling with the the complicated reality of structural racism. Instead, she says, we've inherited a post-multiculturalism regime which, for all its putative embrace of nuanced diversity, is little different than the the static, simplistic "cultural gifts" curricular approaches that characterized attempts to manage demographic pluralism at the turn of the last century.

Though the subtitle of this elegantly conceptualized and executed little book suggests her narrative runs from 1900 to 1954, her analysis really gets underway in earnest with the First World War, when Progressive intellectuals sought to contain the simmering hatreds unleashed by the conflict. In the prewar years, an enlightened approach to ethnographic pluralism accepted the widespread assumption that the term "race" was virtually synonymous with that of "nation," so that it was common to speak of "the Italian race," "the Scottish race," and so on. Insofar as intercultural education progrrams were implemented, they were almost entirely a white affair. Yet this was nevertheless a vanguard of sorts, given the intensity of anti-German fervor and the long history of American nativism. Read more ..


Film Reviews

Moneyball: When Baseball is Very Very Good for Statisticians

October 10th 2011

Film - Moneyball

Moneyball. Director: Bennett Miller. Starring: Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman. Length: 133 minutes.

Manohla Dargis, opens her New York Times review of Bennett Miller’s Moneyball by calling it "a movie about baseball in the digital age." The word "digital" can mean pertaining to fingers, numbers or electronic devices that operate by means of computer code (that is, the numbers 0 and 1), and it is usually the last of these that is intended when the adjective is used to modify the word "age." As computers do not figure particularly prominently in the movie, however, Ms. Dargis appears to mean something a bit more vague by the term, something like "the world we now live in which is completely different from that of the pre-digital age."

If so, she shows herself to be as susceptible to utopian romance as the movie’s makers (including top scribe Aaron Sorkin) and its hero, Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), who at one point in the film proclaims it to be his ambition to transform the game of baseball — not, as it happens, with computers necessarily, since the calculations behind the magic of putting together a winning ball club can be done with calculator, abacus or pencil and paper, but with the analytical powers of the human mind.

You know those old-fashioned baseball movies — or almost any other old-fashioned movies — where the grizzled old-timer shows up the young hot-shot who thinks he knows everything? Well, now the young hot-shot who thinks he knows everything does know everything, and thus he obligingly shows up and humiliates the grizzled old-timer with his outmoded information systems. The superior think-power of Moneyball was supplied to Michael Lewis, the author of the book of the same title on which the film is based, by a self-taught statistician called Bill James who, at the time the book came out eight years ago, looked as if he really might be revolutionizing the game. Most people think it hasn’t quite panned out like that, but the dream dies hard. Ms. Dargis writes that "Mr. Miller holds onto the romance of baseball that Mr. James and others helped strip away," but this is a mistake. Neither Mr. Miller nor Mr. James are stripping away the romance of baseball. They are substituting for it the romance of the intellect. Read more ..


Inside China

Chinese Censors Change their Minds Again and Cancel hit 'Super-Girl' Show

October 3rd 2011

China Topics - Fans of Li Yun-chun

One of the most popular TV programs in China has been cancelled, again. The removal of Super Girl (快乐女声) from the airwaves has caused a stir on Chinese microbloging sites. The show was an American Idol type TV program started in China in 2004 by state TV in southern Hunan province.

After a three year suspension, it was re-launched in 2009 as “Happy Girl” in Chinese (even though it was still called Super Girl in English). But last month (September, 2011), the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television (SARFT) ordered the show to stop broadcasting.

The reasons for the cancellation are varied, depending on who you ask. The official reason is the show was too long. But many commenters are pointing to the show's use of an audience text voting system for the contestants and what some Chinese officials have called the "vulgar" use of young women singing pop songs. Read more ..



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