Everyone's a Critic
The Observer's culture blogTuesday, May 3, 2016
THE GHOST OF PERFORMANCE NETWORK PAST, by Jeff Mortimer
The first words of Dickens' A Christmas Carol are "Marley was dead: to begin with." He lets us know right off the bat that this is going to be what its subtitle says, "A Ghost Story of Christmas," and that unless it is "distinctly understood" that poor Jacob is, or should be, no longer with us, "nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate."
In that spirit, nothing wonderful, or at least thought-provoking, will come from what I am going to relate unless you know right off the bat that I'm a little bit fanatical about Dickens' masterpiece, A Christmas Carol groupie/head/geek. I don't know how many times I've read it, maybe 40; it was an annual ritual of mine for at least that many years. And although I've seen very few movies more than once, I've watched the best-by-far film adaptation, the 1951 version with Alastair Sim as Scrooge, at least that often. I own a facsimile of the first edition (itself now more than 50 years old), a facsimile of the manuscript, a variorum text, a book about how the book reinvented the Anglo-American practice of Christmas (the turkey that the redeemed Scrooge sends to the Cratchits supplanted their goose as the "traditional" holiday entree, for example), and several speculative novels in the form of prequels or sequels.
On the other hand, I scrupulously avoid the multitude of stage versions that materialize every Yuletide. I don't begrudge them their existence. No doubt these productions help some theatrical enterprises keep their noses above the waves, just like The Nutcracker does for dance companies and holiday shopping for retailers. But I soon wearied of seeing Scrooge portrayed as merely irritable, rather than inhuman, or a cadre of dancing Cratchits, scrubbed, coiffed and dressed in pretty pastel holiday apparel.
The Scrooge of the book is, seemingly irredeemably, evil. The Cratchits are, seemingly hopelessly and largely due to Scrooge and his ilk, dirt poor. As with Marley's mortality, nothing wonderful can come of this story unless these things are clear, but it's unclear by design in most stage versions, which aim instead to provide suitably merry seasonal entertainment.
So it seemed like a bit of a risk to buy a ticket to Performance Network's Dickens: An A Cappella Christmas Carol last December, but the fact that they put the author's name first, a la Bram Stoker's Dracula, raised the possibility of a more respectful approach, maybe even the "original instruments" Carol that I had long told my friends I dreamed of. My hopes rose along with the curtain when I saw a grubby alley peopled by a quartet of down-and-outers. A visitor of similar estate appears, and they ask him to tell them "that story."
There have been public readings of A Christmas Carol almost since it was first published. Dickens himself prepared a "reading version," and performing it provided a reliable revenue stream. Annual broadcasts by a bevy of stage and screen stars were a staple of radio's golden age.
To situate such a reading in such a setting struck me as genius. It also meant that most of the words in the script would be by Dickens. One major reason why the 1951 movie outstrips the rest is that much of the dialogue and narration is drawn verbatim from the text. Most other versions are diminished by their scenarists' apparent presumption that they could write better than Dickens did. As the afternoon progressed, my remaining doubts collapsed into ashes, from which arose that delicious immersion in an alternate world that characterizes the best times in the theater.
After the show, I collared the intern who was staffing the box office, briefly (relatively) explained how my passion for the work made this production a dream come true for me, and asked her to convey my thanks to the director, Suzi Regan. I would be remiss if I didn't mention that John Manfredi, her partner in running what proved to be the last iteration of the Network, conceived and authored this adaptation.
I was at another show the next afternoon, raving about what I had seen the day before, when I learned that PN was kaput, that the performance I saw was the third from the last in the theater's history. I didn't believe it at first, partly because my source is one who tends to favor the gloomiest scenarios, partly because it had "died" before and risen again, but mostly because I didn't want to.
When I got home, I used the email address that the intern had written on a sticky note for me ("Why don't you tell her yourself?") and composed a wrenching message meant to convey the unsettling stew of satisfaction and sadness in my heart. Confirmation shot back almost instantly, in the form of a mass message detailing PN's demise. That didn't bother me. If I were she, I would have had my email on auto-pilot, too.
And then it hit me. Not only had I been present, or nearly so, at PN's creation, but that presence had come full circle with its passing. I had long thought A Christmas Carol, in December 1981, was the first production in PN's original home on West Washington Street, but Davi Napoleon's praiseworthy piece in the Observer says otherwise, and she surely knows better than I. Perhaps it was the third. A few hours of scrolling through the December 1981 Ann Arbor News on microfiche revealed only that it carried nary a word about this production, which probably didn't help attendance. The run comprised 13 performances, and there were times when the cast members outnumbered the audience (although, in fairness, it's a pretty big cast). In any event, I played the Ghost of Christmas Past.
I appeared in two more PN shows: a quartet of Samuel Beckett one-acts plays directed by the late David Hunsberger (thanks to him, some of us have actually seen most of Beckett's works), and a misbegotten mishmash of pseudo-historical and quasi-mystical claptrap called Mother Lode. But that was the Network then: there was more room for risk. And people like me could participate as well as patronize.
I don't need to be visited by three spirits. The ghost of Performance Network past will always be with me.
posted by John Hilton at 4:40 p.m. | 0 comments
Monday, February 8, 2016
THE YOUNG@HEART #WCDP, by Kevin Duke
January 9, 2016: I arrived early for a powwow of the Washtenaw County Democratic Party (WCDP), dutifully signed in and then wrote my name in big, bold and blue capital letters on a HELLO MY NAME IS sticker. A smiling Chris Savage (WCDP Chair) and a joyful Tracy Van den Bergh (WCDP Vice-Chair for Resolutions, By-laws, and Policy) were standing just inside the room, positioned like the greeters at the Meijer supermarket on Jackson Rd. But food was first on my personal agenda so I made a beeline to the snack tables. While I ate, I surveyed the room's geography and acoustics to locate a seat where the background noise would be the least problematic (my hearing is impaired). With another bagel and a glass of apple juice in hand, I moved to the opposite end of the wide room.
I staked my claim to an empty table left of the podium, or 'stage right' theatrically speaking. A few minutes later the big, burly Jerry Clayton, the Washtenaw County Sheriff now in his second term in office, joined my table. A curly, red-haired woman, whose name tag was not visible, sat down between Mr. Clayton and me and my table for three was complete.
I'd attended WCDP meetings before. One memorable occasion was in the Pittsfield Township Hall in 1990. I was granted time to address the assembly so I could introduce myself as a candidate for County Commissioner. I was running in what constituted the 9th District, which included Burns Park at the time, where my home was located at the corner of Baldwin Avenue and Wells Street. Some of the Democrats were angry with me because I had aggressively and publicly been challenging the county's neglect of citizens with serious mental illnesses (e.g. paranoid schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar). I had been raising hell because I saw it as part of my job as the president of the county chapter of the Alliance for the Mentally Ill (AMI). I had also raised a ruckus about the county's mistreatment of the homeless and/or destitute. Some of my complaints were published as letters to the editor in the Ann Arbor News. My disagreement with county board chair Meri Lou Murray's characterization of AMI as a "special interest group" was published in the AMI newsletter.
My disputes gave rise to suspicions among Democrats that I must be a Republican. Albert Wheeler, formerly the mayor of the City of Ann Arbor, openly shared his suspicions in a public meeting. I tried to reassure him that I was definitely not a Republican. I said that I was an ally of the Democrats, citing my volunteer work with Focus: Hope in Detroit as a teenager in 1971. In Ann Arbor, I said I helped establish an adult foster care home and a clubhouse for the chronically mentally ill.
Other Democrats participated in a bizarre whisper campaign which insinuated that I was a relative of the notorious KKK "Grand Wizard," David Duke. The ersatz logic of the smear seemed to boil down to this: If you criticize Democrats' policies, budget priorities or such like, then you must be an enemy. If A, then B. To no one's surprise, I was trounced in the August primary election by my rival, Christina Montague, in the race to replace Andrea Walsh.
Fortunately, twenty-six years later, the smoke had cleared. No ghosts from the past materialized to haunt yours truly. The tension in the air on this occasion struck me as appropriate considering the meeting was called to "fight hate and fear in the era of Trump." The vibe was politically positive and the attitude was 'can do'.
Chris Savage and Tracy Van den Bergh were upbeat as they called the meeting to order and introduced the ticklish issue of amending the bylaws. The thorniest amendment, which would prohibit the WCDP from endorsing any candidate during a primary, was vocally challenged and scrutinized, to be sure. But the amendment ultimately passed muster with mostly smiles all 'round.
This WCDP was better at holding a conversation in 2016 than the one I knew in 1990. Bernie Sanders, immigrants, African-Americans, Hispanics, Muslims, Buddhists, indebted students, single moms, the LGBT community, the women and men serving in the armed forces, "potheads," the National Institutes of Health and especially Obama were all feeling the love. The WCDP was moving to embrace diversity that defies categorization. It was safe for me to come out of the closet.
Meanwhile, the Republicans were being pressured by headlines focused on the toxic water in Flint. Governor Snyder somehow lit a fire under Michigan Republicans with his own box of matches. The WCDP party was already riding high on the prospect that Gretchen Driskell could win the 7th Congressional District. Now, with Republicans shooting themselves in the foot, Driskell's showdown with Tim Walberg (R- Tipton) may get an unexpected boost. Likewise, Melissa Gilbert's bid to beat Mike Bishop in 8th District may be similarly supercharged.
With the bylaws business concluded, Chris Savage turned the podium over to U.S. Representative Debbie Dingell (D- 12th Congressional District). The Congresswoman from Dearborn pounced on the opportunity to underscore how she differed from people who calibrate their positions to score points with contributors. "I vote the way I do because I believe in something, not because I might win an endorsement from the National Wildlife Federation" she said in full voice, after pointing out that the NWF rated her 100% in agreement with their positions on various votes in the U.S. House of Representatives.
She then skewered the distorting impact gerrymandering was having on congressional districts. She said gerrymandering had made many districts so politically lopsided, or "safe," that it was a foregone conclusion which party would win, adding that many voters are so alienated by the situation they skip voting altogether because the results are predetermined.
Dingell then focused on some Republicans' habit of smearing everyone of the Islamic faith whenever some terrorist atrocity provides them an opportunity. She pointed out that a Michigan resident took part in one the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil, the 1994 Oklahoma City bombing, but no one painted Michiganders as a population of terrorists.
Intentionally or not, Dingell's remark echoed Bernie Sanders. In The Guardian, Trevor Timm wrote, "[Sanders] has proven false the idea that candidates have to drop everything to treat Isis as a threat to America's existence requiring 24/7 hand wringing, rather than what they really are: a comparatively small problem in the day-to-day lives of Americans that we only exacerbate by doing the terrorists' PR work for them and upending our rights to supposedly "defeat" them..."
But forget Sanders—the crowd loved the way their homegrown Democratic diva cooked issues down into yummy sound bites. Dingell's speech was punctuated again and again by energetic applause and shouts of agreement from the floor.
When Congresswoman Dingell finished warming up the room, a panel of four speakers was introduced to discuss how vital tapping into "social media" was to the Democrats' battle plan to identify young voters and then motivate them to turn out at election time to vote for candidates who embraced their issues.
The panel included Simone Lightfoot, a civil rights advocate and Ann Arbor School Board Trustee; Layali Alsadah, President, EMU Middle Eastern Student Association; William Lopez, immigrant rights activist; and student Isabel Van den Bergh (Tracy's daughter). Bankole Thompson Op-Ed columnist for the Detroit News, moderated the discussion while providing more than a little comic relief. I should mention here that Nathan Catey, an Oakland University student and social media political activist whom President Obama honored with a meeting at the White House, was also in the room. An Internet phenomenon, Catey punches well above his weight. More importantly, he is also a member of the WCDP social media committee.
'Social media' and the 'online community' are in many ways interchangeable terms which refer to the worldwide web that is the home away from home of today's youth—many of whom don't vote. According to the U.S. Census Bureau: "...Overall, America's youngest voters have moved towards less engagement over time, as 18– through 24-year-olds' voting rates dropped from 50.9 percent in 1964 to 38.0 percent in 2012..." In contrast, Census data shows that the 45– through 64-year-olds' voting rates dropped from 75.9 percent in 1964 to 69.7 percent in 2012.
The WCDP hopes to connect with young voters' social networks via the Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat apps that carry their conversations. The election of Justin Trudeau in Canada was won in no small part by such a campaign that hammered the Internet during the two weeks preceding the voting—but only after Trudeau made it clear that he embraced their issues.
Some Republicans may also succeed at replicating Trudeau's success. And I'm not the only Democrat who believes some Republicans are worthy of election. I hope the kinder, gentler ones win, whatever their party affiliation. This country needs a diverse Congress that can talk turkey. It would be an improvement over a Congress with far too many turkeys.
posted by John Hilton at 5:18 p.m. | 0 comments
Thursday, July 2, 2015
MICHIGAN'S WATERLOO CONNECTIONS, by Tim Athan
June's bicentennial of the Battle of Waterloo passed largely unnoticed in Michigan. But the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, and the site of his final defeat, are still remembered in the names of Napoleon and Waterloo townships, as well as the Waterloo Recreation Area.
There was no Ann Arbor in 1815. Detroit had been established as a trading post in 1701, but still had fewer than 1,000 people. In 1817 the cornerstone was laid there for the Catholepistemiad, which was the start of the U-M. "Annarbour" was platted in 1824. With the opening of the Erie Canal the following year, settlers flooded in—including veterans who fought on both sides in the battle.
Detroit's first Catholic bishop, John Frederic Reze, was born in Hanover and served under Prussian commander Blucher in the Battle of Waterloo. William F. Orins (alternatively Osius) arrived in Washtenaw County from the Grand Duchy of Hesse in 1832, after fighting against Napoleon (not in the Battle of Waterloo, though he claimed to be within hearing distance of it). He served for nine years as supervisor for Freedom Township, and twenty as justice of the peace, before moving to Pittsfield, where he died in 1864.
Born in Prussia, Aaron L. Feldcamp served as a corporal under Blucher, and was present at the surrender of Napoleon. He came to America in 1836, and settled in Washtenaw County, where he died in 1846.
William Wilson was born near London. He tried to visit Napoleon in exile after the battle, on the island of St. Helena, but was kept from the house by sentries. In 1823 Mr. Wilson moved to the United States, and eventually prospered in Ypsilanti.
There's another nearby Waterloo in Ontario, and another Napoleon in Ohio. There used to be a Bonaparte Road near Detroit, but in 1929 it was merged with Joy Road.
posted by John Hilton at 2:47 p.m. | 0 comments
Friday, June 12, 2015
MAKING A PRAIRIE: OUR LOCAL POET LAUREATE'S COLLECTED WORDS, by R. B. Schmerl
Don Thackrey, for many years a resident of Ann Arbor and now of Dexter, has long published his poems in some fifty or more "little" poetry magazines, justly acquiring a reputation as a gifted poet who has combined adherence to rhyme, meter, and traditional form with insight, clarity, and occasional humor. He has just published a collection of over a hundred of his poems in a beautiful book he calls Making A Prairie, complete with drawings, photographs, prose comments, and a map of his native Nebraska, showing the areas in which he grew up. The book's organization reflects the chronology of the poet's life, but the content is biofiction rather than autobiography, combining verifiable fact with the truths of fantasy and imagination.
Don, an editor, writer, and research administrator at the University of Michigan for many years, is now in the second half of his ninth decade, and thus has had time to see what life brings at its very different stages. That include serious illness, and the poet does not shrink from his description of his cancer and its effects. Readers of his generation, including this reviewer, may linger in particular over a sonnet like "Funereal Meditation":
He mourns his friends and kinfolk as they die, But, grieving, he can't help but feel relieved That sins known only by these dead will lie
In graves where they can never be retrieved
By snoops, historians, or local press.
Thus doting grandchildren, neighbors, new friends, The pastor, sheriff, councilmen ... none guess
That he is not as pure as he pretends.
He's not convinced that others also hide
A shameful past and that he's not alone
In struggling with those growing aches inside
From youthful acts that old age can't atone.
He knows the Lord forgives ... and that's a start ... But how forgive himself, the hardest part?
But this poem comes late in the book, in a section called "Harvest": first there are poems about the prairie, his family (particularly his parents), his youth, the farm and then the ranch on which he worked. That work occurred before rural electrification, motorized irrigation, and modern household conveniences. Many of these poems mingle keen observations of the natural world with astute perceptions of our own. And poetry itself, and its fashions, are also subjects of his verse, as in "Learning to Be an Edgy Poet." His introduction to this delightful little satire correctly notes that "anyone writing poetry today in traditional forms is apt to be stymied by the almost universal expectation that poetry is to be free from form and tradition." Don was not stymied in this manner, and we are the beneficiaries. But for those among us whose memories of prosody have faded, he has, most helpfully, provided an appendix elucidating the forms he has used.
Making a Prairie is privately printed but is available from the author (firstname.lastname@example.org) and local libraries in Chelsea, Dexter, and Saline. An online version is on Google at "Eleanor Suderman's Bookstore." Prices range from $39.99 for a paperback edition to $51.99 for a hardcover image wrap.
posted by John Hilton at 1:26 p.m. | 0 comments
Wednesday, June 3, 2015
MARCUS BELGRAVE IN BARBADOS, by Tom Rieke
Written on 17 January, 2012. Marcus Belgrave died on May 24, 2015. Reblogged from http:
A few sunny mornings ago, I drove 30 minutes to the east coast listening to classic calypso tunes on my favorite radio station (Q FM), bought a bottle of water, and ran a few kilometers along an empty beach. Then I drove past a big rock, up a long hill, and down a steep one-lane path to Naniki for lunch.
The buildings are duplex cottages, $US 75 per night and up. The horizon is the Atlantic Ocean. On the other side: Senegal.
There was groovy American jazz on the sound system, just the right volume. Very few bars and restaurants in Barbados play jazz in the background. Four places offer live jazz a few times a week. Naniki is one of them. The owner, Tom Hinds, introduced himself and gave me the good news that he has live jazz most Sunday after- noons. "Last Sunday was really special. A great trumpet player."
Naniki was quiet. I selected a table two tables away from a British couple. After I ordered, a group of four sat down at a table two away from them on the other side. Mr. Hinds stopped by to tell me more about the music schedule, and he surprised me: "Last Sunday was the best. The trumpet player was Marcus Belgrave."
Amazing. One of the world's best trumpet players, a legend from Deroit, where he still lives and plays and teaches when he's not traveling. He played with Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, all the Motown stars, Tony Bennet, and Aretha Franklin. He came to Barbados, and he played here?
Mr. Hinds said: "That's Marcus Belgrave over there." "Where?"
"The fella in the hat."
"That's Marcus Belgrave?"
And he invited me over to meet the people at the end of the deck: Marcus Belgrave, his wife Joan (an excellent singer), Mr. Belgrave's Barbadian cousin, and a British woman. The Belgraves are also refugees from winter. They're thinking about settling in Barbados for a good part of the year. His father was from here, one of the thousands of Barbadians who moved to Panamá a century ago to build the canal. He was one of the lucky survivors, and after the canal opened in 1914, he moved to the US. This week, the Belgraves spent a lot many hours tracing the family history in the Barbados Archives.
I said somebody should create a major exhibit (plus an e-book, and a fascinating web site, and a television series, and a documentary film, but I didn't mention all that) about the Barbadians who suffered in Panamá and to construct one of the most important projects in world history. We all agreed that it's a good idea, and Mr. Hinds said: "Mr. Watson at the Barbados Musuem is working on a similar idea, so you should talk with him if you think you can help in any way at all."
Joan said that Marcus was planning to play with the Royal Barbados Police Force Band later that afternoon, at Hastings Rocks, which is directly across the street from my bedroom balcony. Eventually, I excused myself and left them in peace from all my fan talk.
Lunch was grilled marlin, rice and peas, pickled bananas, and a salad. Mr. Hinds showed me the CD covers of the music he was playing today, so far: Monty Alexander, Oscar Peterson's Canadian Suite, and Grover Washington. A totally crisp complement to the easy breeze from Africa. He said:
"Oscar Peterson sat right over there a few years before he died and just chatted all afternoon." I told him about the Jazz Foundation of America. He knew about it, and he knows some musicians in New York who are involved in that work.
When I left, I mentioned the Louis Armstrong Summer Jazz Camp. The Belgraves knew all about the camp in New Orleans, because Marcus is a jazz educator in Detroit and elsewhere. In 2009, he received the Kresge Eminent Artist Prize ($50,000) for his lifetime achievements.They played movie-music medlies, a few Caribbean tunes, and a tribute to Michael Jackson.
As I drove back toward the west coast and turned south, Joanne Sealey on Q FM was hosting her Saturday reggae hour and taking phone calls from New York and Vancouver After I stopped at the supermarket, the new Q FM theme was classic R&B: The Best of Your Love, The Temptations.
At exactly 4:00, the Barbados Royal Police Force Band (founded in 1889) greeted a few hundred Barbadians and tourists with a Sousa march in a historic gazebo overlooking the Caribbean. They played movie-music medleys, a few Caribbean tunes, and a tribute to Michael Jackson.
The conductor announced Marcus, who consulted with Joan and a senior police officer. Then he joined the band for some Latino and jazz numbers, and he played a few solos.
During lunch, Tom Hinds, told me that he learned to love jazz from his father, who collected American records. When I asked him about jazz in Barbados, he said: "Too many people here think that jazz is an elitist thing, only for the intelligentsia. They're wrong. It's exactly the opposite. Those people don't know where jazz came from."
Among many other places, it came from Senegal and Barbados and Panamá and Detroit.
posted by John Hilton at 6:32 p.m. | 0 comments
Monday, April 27, 2015
SPRING IN ANN ARBOR, by Margaret Bennett
We all love springtime in Ann Arbor, especially the usual things that remind us that spring has come—at last!
There is rain instead of snow. We need to get our umbrellas out in case rain comes when it's not expected, because sometimes the rain is more than a simple shower. At those times, an umbrella is our most prized possession. Occasionally as evening wears on, a few people even walk in the light rain.
The sun comes up earlier. It's warmer outdoors. The grass in lawns and other places along the roads and on the golf courses gets greener and greener.
People, especially seniors, are out walking instead of hurrying indoors to get to a warm place. Of course, their attire depends on the weather. If the weather is cool, on go the sweaters, warm hats, and wool sox. When it's raining, they walk inside one of the malls.
Dog-owners seem to enjoy walking their pets more in the more comfortable spring weather instead of hurrying along just to get the chore done.
Children are playing outdoors, and sometimes, just running around with their friends—enjoying their freedom. We see more bike riders—sometimes on weekends, whole families are out enjoying the lovely weather and observing their routes more closely. It's an attractive way to get exercise and spend time with others.
Those who ride bikes to work are less worrisome than in winter when they negotiate the snow and ice on our roads.
In spring, we see more of our neighbors as they emerge from their homes to clean up their yards and their gardens. Sometimes they tidy their garages. They may take time to visit with neighbors. Sometimes, al of us takes time to empty the fast food boxes and wrappers and other items that accumulated in our cars during the long winter.
There are flowering trees, lots of yellow daffodils and even low, blue flowers sprinkled in the grass in a few places. Many songbirds are singing during the day. They are especially loud on the sunniest days. Returning birds like the redwing blackbirds, arrive in a flash of color.
But there are some things that come with spring to Ann Arbor that you may not have noticed. There are green buds on the non-flowering hardwood trees. You see a soft green haze when you take time to look at them. But some of the other, big and small, trees have red buds—and not just the 'redbud' trees. These trees may be ones that have reddish leaves later in the year.
The sky is a lot like it is in winter. When the sun is out, the sky is a beautiful blue. Puffy white clouds float across it. But if the clouds turn dark gray, rain may be on the way.
And, of course, we often have a breeze. It moves the branches on the bare hardwood trees. It even moves some of the evergreen branches, especially those on the Michigan white pine trees.
Young people go outdoors in knee-length shorts (the men) or, sometimes in short skirts (the women). Their legs are bare even on days when the temperature is about 50 degrees.
As the weather warms up, groups of students gather on the steps of Angell Hall to listen to their group leaders provide information and directions.
As spring moves along, university students like to lounge on the lawns; but only when they are dry enough and when the weather is quite warm. It's a good place to visit with friends, or even to eat a snack, and drink something refreshing. Some students study on the grassy places around the university; but the weather has to be really comfortable.
It's easier to see the bird nests and the larger nests the squirrels build in the trees when the leaves are gone and the new leaves aren't large enough to hide things hidden in the branches. In summer when the trees are in full leaf—those nests, which seem to be built of dry leaves and perhaps other items the owners find are not visible.
It's easier to see the small stream behind my house when the leaves are off the trees, too. The stream always bubbles along. Sometimes, if I'm lucky, I can see the moon reflected in it some nights.
The streetlights where I live come on before the sun has set and before we need them. As evening moves along, darkness comes and the lights are helpful and cheerful.
As the grass behind my house gets greener, some small brownish birds arrive. I never see them at other times of year. They have yellow beaks and spend their time pecking at something in the lawn; there must be something edible for them.
The swans are back on our lakes and ponds. They don't fly away to warmer places until January. The young ones can't fly until their feathers are white and they are mature enough for the long trips. But they come back about the same time as the other migrant birds.
Swans are much bigger than you can imagine. If you have not seen one up close, you will not appreciate their huge size. But it's hard to realize their size as they glide along on the surface of our ponds and lakes.
There are many robins these days. But they never eat at bird feeders; they seem to prefer to eat worms. Their breasts are not really red, of course, more of an orange color. And they look fat. They must have had plenty to eat when they were in warmer places during the winter.
posted by John Hilton at 2:42 p.m. | 0 comments
Thursday, January 29, 2015
ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE, by Eve Silberman
In his best-selling novel set in Europe during WWII, Anthony Doerr follows the fortunes of two adolescents as they struggle for survival, moral and physical. Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a blind French girl who memorizes her village through an exquisitely designed miniature made by her father. German orphan Werner Pfennig, a math whiz with a gift for mechanics, chooses to attend a Nazi youth military camp rather than be sent to work in the mines. In alternating chapters, Doerr tells each young person's story.
Contrasts soon develop. Marie-Laure moves from a doll-like passivity to anti-Nazi activism; she delivers messages hidden in a loaf of bread from a nearby bakery, and later broadcasts for the Resistance on a forbidden radio. The reflective Werner becomes increasingly aware that in aligning his lot with the Nazis, he's crossed over to the dark side—but he sees no way out.
He doesn't openly rebel; his moral conflicts take the form of wistful reminiscences of his astute young sister and the gentle woman who ran the orphanage where he and his sister grew up. His gentle friend, Frederick, finds escape from the Nazi camp—a place where boys are asked to turn on the "weakest" among them—by scanning the skies for birds, using a pair of antique field glasses, but ultimately defies the Nazis at a terrible price. Werner, drafted into the Reich army, uses his technical ability to hunt down –what else?--Resistance wireless broadcasters.
A third story heightens the tension. When it's clear the Germans will take Paris, the director of the museum where Marie-Laure's father works decides he must find a hiding place for the museum's most valuable possession: a diamond named "The Sea of Flames." He enlists the senior LeBlanc in a scheme to hide the precious albeit scary stone—it's rumored that a curse will follow the owner––with the result that even while Germany slides into defeat, a Nazi officer is on the heels of Marie-Laure and family.
The "Sea of Flames" adds some needed suspense to a story that, though it has a lot of beautiful writing, sometimes drags under its reverential telling. Describing Marie-Laure's blindness (congenital cataracts that left her blind by age six), Doerr writes, 'In her imagination in her dreams, everything has color. The museum buildings are beige, chestnut, hazel . . . piano chords loll in the speaker of the wireless in the guard station, projecting rich blacks and complicated blues . . . "
Regrettably, Doerr doesn't develop characters as skillfully as settings. Marie-Laure, her father, Werner, Frederick, even the surprisingly amicable Nazi Sergeant Major von Rumpel remain as lifeless as Marie-Laure's miniature house. A bit weirdly, the book comes most to life life when Marie reads aloud a Braille version of Jules Verne's watery adventure 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. When Captain Nemo and his guys are "flailing away with their axes" at sea monsters, it's like break dancing transforming a dance hall where you're tired of watching waltzes. Guess there's reasons some books are for the ages.
posted by John Hilton at 4:23 p.m. | 0 comments