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Australian Aboriginal Art

May 31, 2012 Leave a comment

Bush Hen Dreaming, Sandhill Country, Abie Loy Kamerre, 2004, synthetic polymer paint on canvas

[Seattle Art Museum website]

A new show opened today at the Seattle Art Museum, titled Ancestral Modern: Australian Aboriginal Art from the Kaplan & Levi Collection. Here is the short description of the show.

With more than 100 works created from 1970 through 2009, the exhibition showcases what has been called the artistic renaissance of the world’s oldest living culture.

More from the website:

When the British began settling the continent some 230 years ago, Aboriginal people were regarded as among the most miserable societies, possessing little in the way of culture. Without framed paintings or sculptures on pedestals (the Euro-pean archetypes of art), they were considered a people with no art at all. In fact, because most Aboriginal art was being made for the restricted context of ceremony, it was intentionally hidden from public view. During the last one hundred years, Aboriginal artists have chosen to change that. While they continue to make art for ceremonies that are part of the longest continuing tradition of art known to humanity, they now also create art that is disseminated to an international audience.

And:

Welcome to visions of the long haul and big picture of our existence on Earth. Finally, after over 50,000 years of making art, we are able to see what the oldest continuous culture on the planet has in mind. Isn’t it about time? This art takes us into immense deserts and shimmering billabongs, into night skies and underground.

It is an aesthetic pleasure unlike any other. Utilizing contemporary mediums, these artists adapt visual languages that evolved over centuries. What may look abstract is full of symbols and stories that take on common human dilemmas—greed, desire, the search for nourishment, and punishment of deceit. Most often, this art offers veneration of the lands that are in their care and the founding ancestors who continue to provide direction.

The collection from which the exhibition is drawn is a promised gift to SAM from Margaret Levi and Bob Kaplan, a local couple who have been building it over the last two decades. As it turns out, I know Margaret, a colleague at the university and political scientist of great distinction. Until the opening celebration we attended last night, though, I failed to appreciate the size and scope of the collection.

We arrived in the middle of the half-hour reception, tried a couple of hors d’oeuvres, then went into the auditorium to await the start of the formal program. Eventually, a museum trustee made welcoming remarks and thanked the list of sponsors, then introduced Margaret and Bob, each of whom said a few words about how they built the collection and why. Next up was Kim Beazley, the Australian ambassador to the US, in from DC. Whoever wrote his remarks did an excellent job. He placed the show in the context of aboriginal culture, emphasizing (as in the quoted passage above) the 50,000-year-long development of that culture, its depth, its uniqueness, its importance. We then were the beneficiaries of a superb slideshow-lecture by Pam McClusky, SAM’s Curator of Art of Africa and Oceania. Having heard three of her presentations in the past four months, for three different exhibition openings, I can say that she’s quite gifted at this.

Prepped for the art we were to see, we then proceeded to the galleries three floors up in a procession led by Joe Seymour, a local Native American. He chanted and hit a drum as we ascended the stairs and escalators. Then we gathered around at the exhibition entrance, waiting for everyone to arrive, after which he explained the meaning of and then sang a Native song. Ambassador Beazley officially opened the exhibition before placing us in the hands of Djambawa Marawili, an aboriginal Australian. He led us through the galleries in yet another procession, banging two sticks together and singing, accompanied by two young aboriginal men and an older aboriginal woman.

Once Marawili had made a loop, he stood in the opening gallery with his companions and sang more songs, with one of the young men playing a didgeridoo while the other man and the woman danced. After several minutes of this, he invited us to see the show, which we did.

It was already late and the rooms were crowded. As a result, we didn’t go through the galleries in any systematic way or read the signs. We simply got an overview, examining a few pieces that we especially liked, and happily anticipated an extended return visit.

Here is the SAM exhibition website’s description of the painting shown at the top of this post:

Image and title seem to be at odds in this painting. Swirling lines provide no clue as to where the hen might be. However, the bush hen’s search for seeds, plums and tomatoes is imbedded in the memory of the artist and forms a source of inspiration. Both a glimpse of the dynamic movement of a creature trying to find fruit, and a record of the channels of sandhills, this landscape merges daily life with the eternal forces of the dreaming. “Dreaming” is a term that often stands for Aboriginal cosmologies that encompass the creation of the universe, and provide a source of ongoing spiritual nourishment.

And here’s another painting, with website description:

Untitled (05.013), 2004, Mick Jawalji, natural pigments on plywood

A subtle luminosity comes from Mick Jawalji’s unique combinations of ochres and resins. His application of pigments is washed and soaked into the wood, giving a sense of light as the sun hits the earth or the ancestral forces that infuse the land. The arcs and curves may denote people, windbreaks and symbolism of the desert. While Jawalji paints at Warmun, his traditional country lies some 400 miles away and he tends to work in isolation to evoke the desert in distinctive ways.

On the way out, we stopped in the lobby for some food: salmon skewers, garbanzo bean cakes, vegetables. Mini-desserts were being passed by the serving staff. I passed on the tiny cheesecake, but tried some other little cake.

We’ll be back, perhaps for one of the tours that Pam McClusky is sure to lead. (In three weeks, we will join her for a tour of the Central Asian ikat exhibition that I wrote about here in March.)

One more? Okay.

Wati Kutjara (Two Men Story), 2003, Spinifex Men’s Collaborative, synthetic polymer paint on canvas

Categories: Art, Museums

Change We Can Believe In, XXXII

May 29, 2012 Leave a comment

Change We Can Believe In: If We Killed ’em, They Were up to No Good

Yup, it’s really that simple. You trust our president, don’t you? He’s smart. And a constitutional law scholar. I sleep better, knowing that he’s watching out for us, deciding who should live and who should die.

Jo Becker and Scott Shane reported in a lengthy front-page piece in today’s NYT about how

Mr. Obama has placed himself at the helm of a top secret “nominations” process to designate terrorists for kill or capture, of which the capture part has become largely theoretical. … [He] approves every new name on an expanding “kill list,” poring over terrorist suspects’ biographies on what one official calls the macabre “baseball cards” of an unconventional war. When a rare opportunity for a drone strike at a top terrorist arises — but his family is with him — it is the president who has reserved to himself the final moral calculation.

The article is based on conversations with a long list of past and present administration officials. It paints a largely positive picture of Obama and his drones, but every so often words of caution sneak out. For example (emphasis mine):

Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.

Counterterrorism officials insist this approach is one of simple logic: people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good. “Al Qaeda is an insular, paranoid organization — innocent neighbors don’t hitchhike rides in the back of trucks headed for the border with guns and bombs,” said one official, who requested anonymity to speak about what is still a classified program.

This counting method may partly explain the official claims of extraordinarily low collateral deaths. In a speech last year Mr. Brennan, Mr. Obama’s trusted adviser, said that not a single noncombatant had been killed in a year of strikes. And in a recent interview, a senior administration official said that the number of civilians killed in drone strikes in Pakistan under Mr. Obama was in the “single digits” — and that independent counts of scores or hundreds of civilian deaths unwittingly draw on false propaganda claims by militants.

But in interviews, three former senior intelligence officials expressed disbelief that the number could be so low. The C.I.A. accounting has so troubled some administration officials outside the agency that they have brought their concerns to the White House. One called it “guilt by association” that has led to “deceptive” estimates of civilian casualties.

“It bothers me when they say there were seven guys, so they must all be militants,” the official said. “They count the corpses and they’re not really sure who they are.”

Harper’s Scott Horton, commenting today on this part of the article, observes (emphasis mine again) that

this is a very important disclosure. On one hand, it clarifies the basis for the CIA’s no-collateral-damage claim. On the other, it puts the drone program on very tenuous grounds under the laws of war. The U.S. military in Iraq, for instance, has previously disciplined officers who issued rules of engagement authorizing the targeting of all military-age males. A person cannot be presumed to be a terrorist simply because he is male, of military age, and happens to be in the same village as some terrorists—he must be engaged in conduct that makes him a combatant. Applied to targeting, this presumption raises serious war-crime issues. As the Times reports, the administration is currently limiting its use to the counting of persons unintentionally killed when a legitimate target has been struck, which theoretically leads only to false information about the number of innocent civilians killed. But the distinction isn’t actually quite so clear-cut: in deciding on a strike, an estimate of collateral damage has to be included. And if all able males are deemed legitimate targets, that process is being seriously distorted.

Near the end of the NYT article, Becker and Shane pull back from the details to provide a glimpse of the broader implications of our drone wars.

[Obama’s] focus on strikes has made it impossible to forge, for now, the new relationship with the Muslim world that he had envisioned. Both Pakistan and Yemen are arguably less stable and more hostile to the United States than when Mr. Obama became president.

Justly or not, drones have become a provocative symbol of American power, running roughshod over national sovereignty and killing innocents. With China and Russia watching, the United States has set an international precedent for sending drones over borders to kill enemies.

Imagine — Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize!

Categories: Law, Politics, War

Sparky’s List

May 29, 2012 Leave a comment

I regularly include Tom Tomorrow cartoons in my posts. It’s all I can do not to put up his new cartoon every week. (His latest is above.) But he can’t continue to produce them without income.

It’s a tough time for political cartoonists. Newspapers, in their on-going quest to cut costs, have dropped them right and left. One bright spot is Daily Kos, which has stepped in to provide a home for a group of top-notch cartoonists, Tom Tomorrow among them. Yet, even Tom’s income continues to decline, and this has prompted him to create a new subscription service, Sparky’s List, which he rolled out last week. Here is a portion of his announcement.

Following the path recently trailblazed by my good friend Ruben Bolling, I am unveiling a new feature for the truly devoted This Modern World reader: SPARKY’S LIST.

As you may have heard, the newspaper industry has been undergoing some difficulties of late. As regular readers of this blog are aware, too many altweeklies have decided to save literally tens of dollars a week by cutting their most popular features — the comics.

Thanks to the internet, my cartoons are more widely read than I could have ever imagined possible, when I started out twenty or so years ago. But as my readership expands exponentially, my income remains in steady decline. I’m no economist, but that doesn’t seem sustainable to me.

I’m still fortunate enough to have a substantial number of clients both in print and online, for which I am profoundly grateful — but the reality is that the world is changing rapidly, and we all need to keep figuring out different ways to adapt.

So I’ve decided to add a new component to the overall Tomorrowco strategy for survival, and offer my own email subscription service which — as previously noted — I’m calling SPARKY’S LIST. Like Ruben, I didn’t want to ask for charity — I’ve always been somewhat uncomfortable even having that donations button on the blog. Instead, I wanted to offer something of value to TMW’s most devoted readers — the opportunity to see the cartoon several days before it appears online or in print, as well as the convenience of having it delivered directly to your inbox. …

But wait, there’s more.

I’ll also offer occasional extras, such as alternate unpublished drafts of cartoons, contest/giveaways, “classics” from years past, and other bonus content to be determined. But don’t worry, I won’t spam your inbox — these will simply be the sprinkles on the delicious, weekly ice cream sundae that is SPARKY’S LIST.

The cost is $9.99 for a six month subscription, which, for comparative purposes, is literally less than any common item or experience you can think of that would cost you more than $9.99!

And in all seriousness, you’ll be helping to support the cartoon, and keep it alive. Which is no small thing.

I subscribed immediately. You can too, by going here. I recommend that you do. If you already have an Amazon account, signing up takes just a moment. You’ll be supporting a good cause.

Categories: Cartoons, Media, Politics

On a Wave

May 26, 2012 Leave a comment

Two nights ago, I wrote about Thad Ziolkowski’s new novel Wichita, which I was inspired to read by Natalie Bakopoulus’s review in last Sunday’s NYT. She wrote that “its emotional terrain is touching and vast. Whereas you might begin the book drawn in by its sense of humor, its ending will unhinge you, as if a storm has ripped through you and, like the wind in Rilke’s poem, sucked “the world from your senses.” I was halfway through at the time, and noted that I wasn’t unhinged yet.

I finished it yesterday. Bakopoulus has a point. I wasn’t all that fond of the characters initially, but the novel sneaks up and surprises with its power, so much so that I awoke this morning thinking about it and decided to download Ziolkowski’s memoir from a decade ago, On a Wave.

I’m just over a hundred pages in now. What a ten-year-old!

In the delightful prologue, the author, a week into a proofreading temp job in New York after teaching for a year at an upstate college, leaves work and takes the subway to Far Rockaway, where he finds a surf shop and heads out on a board for the first time in years. Then we begin the memoir proper, going back twenty-five years to the aftermath of Ziolkowski’s parents’ divorce. His father remains in DC, where he is a classics professor, while his mother and her soon-to-be husband move with the author and his younger brother to the Atlantic coast of Florida, near Cape Canaveral.

I don’t know which is more astonishing: the feats of the young author as he braves a world of teenagers and adults in order to learn the skills and culture of surfing or the willingness of his mother to let him participate in this world. Either way, it’s a breathtaking story, compellingly told.

Categories: Books

Wichita

May 24, 2012 Leave a comment

Four days ago, I wrote about Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family’s Century of Art and Loss, which I had begun reading. I didn’t happen to mention that I was considering putting it aside temporarily in order to read a new novel, Thad Ziolkowsi’s Wichita. I did so just after writing the post, and I’m now halfway through.

Why Wichita? More to the point, why Wichita when I was enjoying de Waal’s book, and when a long list of novels awaited me if it was fiction I hungered for?

I don’t have a good answer. I suppose it helps that Wichita is only about 250 pages long, in contrast to the undoubtedly richer Hilary Mantel historical novels that top my fiction list, Wolf Hall and the new Bring Up the Bodies. All I can say is, last Friday night I was previewing the Sunday NYT book review section online — a weekly habit — and Natalie Bakopoulus’s review drew me in. I downloaded the free Amazon sample right away, read the first few pages, and as I continued to enjoy The Hare with Amber Eyes over the weekend, I couldn’t get the idea of Wichita out of my head. On Sunday evening, I gave in.

I am invariably at a loss as to what to say about a novel without saying too much about the plot. For much the same reason, I didn’t read Bakopoulus’s review of Wichita all that closely. I just skipped around, alighting on a few passages, such as the review’s close:

“Wichita” is a novel about expectations and outcomes, about what is open and what is veiled. Its emotional terrain is touching and vast. Whereas you might begin the book drawn in by its sense of humor, its ending will unhinge you, as if a storm has ripped through you and, like the wind in Rilke’s poem, sucked “the world from your senses.”

“Through the empty branches the sky remains. / It is what you have.”

Part of what tempted me to read Wichita is the fact that some of the characters are academics. I suppose I won’t be revealing too much if I say that the book starts with the main character arriving at his mother’s home in Wichita upon graduating from Columbia, leaving his east-coast-based academic father and grandfather and uncle and aunt and cousins behind. At the book’s halfway point, he is only in his third day back at the house. I’m not unhinged yet.

Ziolkowski is himself an academic, a professor at Pratt. Wichita is his first novel. He is also a poet and the author of a memoir, On a Wave, about his surfing years. So I’ve learned. A week ago, I knew nothing about him. I’m looking forward to reading this interview once I finish the novel.

Categories: Books

Failure, or Success?

May 23, 2012 Leave a comment

Whenever I read mainstream news sources (NYT, NPR) these days, I realize that my notion of reality has undergone a major shift in recent years. Either I’ve gone crazy or, after decades of complacency, the scales have fallen from my eyes. I think I know which, but perhaps I’m not in a position to judge.

Here’s the thing. I attended a presentation today about the future of museums, museum best practices, and such, and at one point I realized that I heard something the speaker said in a way that must be at odds with how everyone else in the room heard it. Are they all blind, or am I just mad?

The speaker was talking about the need for museums to engage their communities. Not just outreach, bringing the riches of the museum to the people, but engaging them more deeply. This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense without examples, and she offered a few, such as a program a small museum in a southern state ran that engaged inmates in painting, in parallel with an exhibition.

That’s roughly what the program did. The details don’t matter. What matters is that the speaker spoke about other work engaging museums and prisons, and mentioned how poorly we do in this country with our prison system. She passed over this lightly, not wanting to turn the conversation to the politics of prisons and our failed war on drugs, but she said enough to suggest that this is what she had in mind. First offenders locked away for years because of mandatory sentencing guidelines, drug offenders locked up for life rather than getting treatment and becoming productive contributors to society. States spending funds on ever-growing prison populations rather than on underlying social issues. That sort of thing.

The underlying message: our prisons are failing us. Our legal/justice structure is failing us. Well, yes. Then again, maybe it’s succeeding. This was what I thought, and what sent off the alarm that maybe I’m crazy.

What is the goal of the prison system anyway? Rehabilitation? If so, then yes, the system is a disaster. But we can make sense of it all if we simply re-state the mission of the system. It’s not rehabilitation. It’s increasing the profits of the corporations that build the prisons and, more and more often, run them. State after state is privatizing the prison system.

Let’s see. Oh, here. Here’s Adam Gopnik, reporting on prisons four months ago in The New Yorker:

A growing number of American prisons are now contracted out as for-profit businesses to for-profit companies. The companies are paid by the state, and their profit depends on spending as little as possible on the prisoners and the prisons. It’s hard to imagine any greater disconnect between public good and private profit: the interest of private prisons lies not in the obvious social good of having the minimum necessary number of inmates but in having as many as possible, housed as cheaply as possible.

Who said our prisons are failing?

Then there’s our war on terror. You can see where I’m heading. Failure? All these years and we still can’t shut al Qaeda down? Well, what’s our measure of failure? More money to private contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan. More money for drones in countries with which we aren’t at war, such as Pakistan and Yemen.

Heck, what about our own country? We’re not at war with ourselves, are we? Yet, drones are our future, with local law enforcement agencies getting into the act. And all those full body scanners at the airports. Do they work? Do we need them? No matter. Companies are making big bucks off them. Michael Chertoff, Bush’s Secretary of Homeland Security, is a lobbyist now representing the companies that make the scanners. What’s good for our national security corporations is what’s good for the country.

And education. Yes, our public schools are a failure. We all know that. Everyone says so. The answer? Privatization, of course. We’re going to pay companies to make the schools better.

But perhaps school failure is a success, as it justifies handing public funds to a handful of for-profit companies that have convinced mayors, governors, presidents that they have the answer.

You see? Our prisons aren’t failing. Our national security system isn’t failing. Our schools aren’t failing. They are succeeding. They are ensuring that money flows where it’s meant to.

Crazy, huh?

Don’t agree just yet. I bring you Diane Ravitch, who has an article in the current issue of The New York Review of Books. I may be crazy, but she isn’t. She’s one of the most widely respected voices on public education in this country. Professor at NYU, Assistant Secretary of Education in the first Bush administration, a member of the National Assessment Governing Board under Clinton and the second Bush.

In her NYR article, Ravitch reviews the recent Council on Foreign Relations report U.S. Education Reform and National Security: Independent Task Force Report, written by, among others, Joel Klein (former head of NYC city schools, now a Murdoch employee) and Condi Rice. The article is not behind the NYR paywall. You can read it without charge, and I urge you to do so. After reading it two nights ago, I was feeling a little more relaxed about my bout of madness.

The beauty of the report is its brilliant interweaving of two great failures: our schools and our national security system. The solution? Shovel money into the usual educational stoves.

I could quote many passages. This one will do:

Statistics are marshaled to prove that our schools are failing, our economy is at risk, our national security is compromised, and everything we prize is about to disappear because of our low-performing public schools. Make no mistake, the task force warns: “Educational failure puts the United States’ future economic prosperity, global position, and physical safety at risk.”

Despite its alarmist rhetoric, the report is not a worthy successor to the long line of jeremiads that it joins. Unlike A Nation at Risk [published in 1983], which was widely quoted as a call to action, this report is a plodding exercise in groupthink among mostly like-minded task force members. Its leaden prose contains not a single sparkling phrase for the editorial writers. The only flashes of original thinking appear in the dissents to the report.

What marks this report as different from its predecessors, however, is its profound indifference to the role of public education in a democratic society, and its certainty that private organizations will succeed where the public schools have failed. Previous hand-wringing reports sought to improve public schooling; this one suggests that public schools themselves are the problem, and the sooner they are handed over to private operators, the sooner we will see widespread innovation and improved academic achievement.

Ravitch’s skewering of the report is worth reading in full.

With that, I rest my case. I’m not mad after all. Hello? Hello? Can you hear me? Let me out of here!

Categories: Business, Politics

Cav-en-dish-a!

May 21, 2012 Leave a comment

Mark Cavendish winning stage 13 of the Giro d’Italia

[From steephill.tv]

You probably know that the third and final week of the Giro d’Italia began today (a rest day). And you’re probably wondering why I’m not writing my usual paeans to Mark Cavendish, like I do during Tours de France. After all, he’s won three stages already — 2, 4, and 13 — and might have won a couple more if not for crashes. Plus, he’s comfortably ahead in the points classification, on his way to a likely red jersey.

And all this while riding for a new team, without the support of leadout rider extraordinaire and buddy Mark Renshaw. With HTC-Highroad bowing out of cycling, Cavendish signed with Team Sky while Renshaw joined Rabobank. The end of a great partnership. For the Giro, Cavendish has had the support of new teammate Geraint Thomas in the sprint finishes.

I’ve had trouble following the Giro though. I can’t seem to find it on Comcast. It’s broadcast in the US by Universal Sports, which used to be 115 in my cable package, but when I go to 115, I get something altogether different, and when I systematically search through all channels, I don’t find it. Thus, I’m reduced to following on the web.

Of course, I do have a job. Not starting each morning watching the Giro isn’t the worst thing in the world. And seeing the Italian video highlights has its charms. Like last Friday’s finish. Team Sky wasn’t properly organized at first, but just in time, they put Cavendish in position. He made his characteristic burst, crossing the line to the announcer’s shriek, “Cav-en-dish-a! Cav-en-dish-a! Cav-en-dish-a!”

For more on Cavendish’s stage win Friday, here is The Guardian’s James Callow reporting:

Mark Cavendish continued his dominance of a sport usually ruled by the finest of victory margins with his third stage win of the 2012 Giro d’Italia.

The Team Sky rider defeated Katusha’s Alexander Kristoff to take stage 13 by a bike length, with Mark Renshaw of Rabobank in third, but that hardly tells the story.

As the race’s fastest men strained for the finishing line over the final few hundred metres into the Piedmontese town of Cervere, Cavendish ceased pedalling, dropped behind the leading group and then easily outstripped them from a more open position.

It was the Manxman’s 10th career stage victory in the Giro and 33rd victory in all grand tours, taking him to within two wins of Freddy Maertens, who lies ninth in the all-time rankings. At 26 years old he may eye Eddy Merckx’s record of 64 stage wins with fascination, even if he knows he will struggle to beat it.

“I’m really, really happy and it’s nice to finally get another win,” Cavendish said. “The guys just rode their hearts out again today and I’m so, so proud. After they did that I had to win, I had to find some gap to get through.

“It was just a question of waiting for that moment and then taking my chance. It was a headwind finish which probably played into my hands a little bit after leaving it late.”

[snip]

If Cavendish’s finish bore the mark of a rider at his improvisational best, his Sky team-mates had delivered him into a position where a rider of his talent would have been unfortunate not to win.

And memories of the pain from his high-speed crash in the third stage, when he was brought down by Roberto Ferrari, are finally receding. “It’s taken me a week to recover from the crash that I had but every day I’m feeling better and better,” said Cavendish.

Categories: Cycling

The Hare with Amber Eyes

May 20, 2012 Leave a comment

The wonders of the internet! A week ago, I wrote about the book I was reading, Charles King’s Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams. My plan was to turn to the latest installment of Robert Caro’s LBJ biography, when I finished it. But instead I’m now a fourth of the way through Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family’s Century of Art and Loss. Why that? Because of the kind suggestion of someone who took the time to write a comment in response to my Odessa post. A complete stranger. I rarely get comments to my posts. Which is fine. I don’t expect any. But I’m grateful that I got this one. I remembered reading about de Waal’s book when it came out. Perhaps I read Walter Kaiser’s review two Octobers ago in the New York Review of Books. But I had since forgotten about it.

Here’s the publisher’s description:

In the 1870s, Charles Ephrussi assembled a collection of 360 Japanese ivory carvings known as netsuke, some comical and some erotic, none of them larger than a matchbox. The scion of a rich, respected banking family that “burned like a comet” in Parisian and Viennese society, Ephrussi was an early supporter of the impressionists; Marcel Proust was briefly his secretary and used him as the model for the aesthete and lover Swann in Remembrance of Things Past.

The Holocaust swept Ephrussi and his glorious, cosmopolitan family into oblivion, and almost the only thing that would remain of their vast empire was the netsuke collection, smuggled out of their Vienna palace (now occupied by Hitler’s theorist on the “Jewish question”) in the pocket of a loyal maid, Anna—one carving a day for a year.

In this grand story, the renowned ceramicist Edmund de Waal, the fifth generation to inherit the collection, traces the story of a remarkable family and a tumultuous century. At once sweeping and intimate, A Hare with Amber Eyes is a deeply personal meditation on art, history, and family, as elegant and precise as the netsuke themselves.

And the conclusion to Kaiser’s review:

Only someone for whom objects are as meaningful as they are for Edmund de Waal could have performed his quest. Only someone with his intelligence and sensitivity could have written such a fascinating account of his journey. The reader—and, indeed, the author—of this book will probably never fully understand the compulsion that drove him to undertake that journey, and his account inevitably leaves us with unanswered questions. Just why and how did a collection of netsuke impose, as he claims, a responsibility on him to explore his family’s history? Wasn’t it, rather, an opportunity that he may, consciously or unconsciously, have been seeking? But even if it was, how then did these Japanese artifacts allow him to open the doors of his family’s European past? Hasn’t his netsuke collection come to have greater significance for him than it did for any of its previous owners? Why did he feel compelled personally to revisit the rooms in Paris, Vienna, and Tokyo where the netsuke had resided? In short, how has a collection of tiny carvings exerted such irresistible exactions and provided such poignant ancestral awareness?

At the very end of the book, when his quest has taken him geographically and historically as far as Odessa and his family’s origins, he suddenly wonders what sort of book he is writing: “I no longer know if this book is about my family, or memory, or myself, or is still a book about small Japanese things.” The answer, of course, is that it is about all of those things, but most of all it is the evocative account of a gifted, interesting, inquiring man in search of his historic identity.

None of this explains why I chose to read de Waal rather than the LBJ biography. All I can say is that I’m having difficulty finding the ship to board that will take me away from the borderlands of the nineteenth-and twentieth-century’s Russian and Soviet empires and on to the new world. The trouble began with Max Egremont’s Forgotten Land: Journeys Among the Ghosts of East Prussia, which led to Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, Orlando Figes The Crimean War: A History, Colin Thubron’s Shadow of the Silk Road, Thomas de Waal’s The Caucasus, Charles King’s Odessa, and now The Hare with Amber Eyes. I need to find an LBJ ancestor who emigrated from the Black or Baltic Sea to Texas and get on board with him or her.

In any case, the current book is a natural successor to the Odessa book. Early on, we learn about the origin of Edmund de Waal’s ancestral wealth, in a paragraph that could have come straight from King’s book.

Odessa was a city within the Pale of Settlement, the area on the western borders of imperial Russia in which Jews were allowed to live. It was famous for its rabbinical schools and synagogues, rich in literature and music, a magnet for the impoverished Jewish shtetls of Galicia. It was also a city that doubled its population of Jews and Greeks and Russians every decade, a polyglot city full of speculation and traders, the docks full of intrigues and spies, a city on the make. Charles Joachim Ephrussi [the author’s great-great-great grandfather] had transformed a small grain-trading business into a huge enterprise by cornering the market in buying wheat. He bought the grain from the middlemen who transported it on carts along the heavily rutted roads from the rich black soil of the Ukrainian wheat fields, the greatest wheat fields in the world, into the port of Odessa. Here the grain was stored in his warehouses before being exported across the Black Sea, up the Danube, across the Mediterranean.

By 1860, the family had become the greatest grain exporters in the world.

De Waal writes beautifully about objects and touch. For instance, in introducing us to the netsuke collection that his great-grandfather acquired in Paris, de Waal discusses the vitrines in which wealthy people of the era would display their findings.

A collector friend of Charles is described in the act of placing Japanese objects in a vitrine, “like a painter applying a stroke to his canvas. The harmony is complete and the refinement exquisite… ”

The vitrines exist so that you can see objects, but not touch them: they frame things, suspend them, tantalize through distance.

This is what I realise now I failed to understand about vitrines. I spent the first twenty years of my life as a potter earnestly trying to get objects out of the glass cases in which my pots were often placed in galleries and museums. They die, I’d say, behind glass, held in that airlock. Vitrines were a sort of coffin: things need to be out and take their chances away from the protection of formal display, to be liberated. “Out of the drawing-room and into the kitchen!” I wrote in a sort of manifesto. There was too much in the way. There was trop de verre, too much glass, as a great architect commented on seeing a rival Modernist’s house of glass.

But the vitrine — as opposed to the museum’s case — is for opening. And that opening glass door and the moment of looking, then choosing, and then reaching in and then picking up is a moment of seduction, an encounter between a hand and an object that is electric.

One more quote, because the story is so charming.

Charles bought a picture of some asparagus from Manet, one of his extraordinary small still lives, where a lemon or rose is lambent in the dark. It was a bundle of twenty stalks bound in straw. Manet wanted 800 francs for it, a substantial sum, and Charles, thrilled, sent 1,000. A week later Charles received a small canvas signed with a simple M in return. It was a single asparagus stalk laid across a table with an accompanying note: “This seems to have slipped from the bundle.”

Categories: Books

NYT Vows at 20

May 19, 2012 Leave a comment

Fellow fans of the NYT Vows column, be sure to read tomorrow’s celebration of its twentieth anniversary. Lois Smith Brady tracks down six of the first featured couples and updates us on their marriages, providing stories of happiness, divorce, and death. Good stories all.

The one weakness is Brady’s introduction, which in true Vows style is a bit overdone. For instance:

The way people look at marriage, and live it, has changed over the years. It’s like farming, once considered drudgery and hard work, but now seen as a soulful utopian adventure.

Young people are so beautifully ambitious about marriage these days. I recently interviewed a couple for a Vows column who said they wanted to spend their lives finding each other’s “inner voices.” Marriage may have changed, but love has not. It still makes people say crazy things. And it’s still a glue that no one has control of.

Has so much changed in twenty years? I think not.

But never mind. Read the stories, which Brady recounts well.

Categories: Journalism

Paper Airplane Record

May 18, 2012 Leave a comment

The front page feature article in today’s Wall Street Journal raises a provocative question: should the world record in paper airplane flight distance be held by the individual who can design, build, and throw a paper airplane the farthest, or should designer-thrower duos be eligible as well? This is not an abstract question. At the end of February, designer John Collins teamed with former Cal quarterback Joe Ayoob to build and sail a plane 226 feet and 10 inches, breaking the record of 207 feet, 4 inches set in 2003 by then-fifteen-year-old Stephen Krieger.

This would be a good time for me to note that I know Stephen. He is a recent graduate from the math department at the university. I never had him in a class, but a few summers ago he was one of the teaching assistant/counselors in the summer program I help run for talented high school students. At the opening orientation, as part of the counselor introductions, a surprising fact was revealed about each one. Stephen’s fact: he was the Guinness World Record holder for paper airplane flight.

Who knew there even was such a category? Though I suppose it’s natural enough. More to the point, given the hundreds of millions (billions?) of paper airplane throwers in the world, I couldn’t believe that the record holder was a colleague.

No more.

Stephen, ever the good sport, was on hand for the record-breaking throw. From the WSJ article:

Stephen Kreiger had lived through many attempts to overtake his world record for flight. But he watched with resignation in February as a challenger prepared to unseat him using an unorthodox strategy.

Mr. Kreiger had held since 2003 the Guinness World Record for throwing a paper airplane the farthest. He had won it at age 15, after a summer’s preparing by toning his throwing arm.

But here was 51-year-old John Collins at the end of the empty Air Force hangar in Sacramento, Calif., preparing for the flight of a newly folded plane he had designed, having not worked out at all.

And his plane was in the hands of a ringer: a large 27-year-old man with a buff arm.

The stand-in, Joe Ayoob, wound up and rifled the plane in a long, towering arch that came as little surprise: Mr. Ayoob, as a University of California-Berkeley quarterback, logged more than 1,700 passing yards in 2005.

“Competitive paper airplane flying had always been, in my mind, what can one person do with one piece of paper,” says Mr. Kreiger, a 23-year-old engineer. Using a ringer, he says, is problematic: “I don’t really think that’s the spirit of the competition.”

Guinness World Records NA Inc. thought otherwise. Mr. Ayoob’s throw, immortalized on YouTube, sailed 226 feet and 10 inches, breaking Mr. Kreiger’s record of 207 feet, 4 inches. Guinness in March named him and Mr. Collins the record holders.

A Guinness spokeswoman says there was no internal debate about giving Mr. Collins credit. But some paper-plane purists are still aflutter.

Paper-plane enthusiasts have traditionally seen theirs as an individual sport. The question now: Is Mr. Collins’s ringer a bad precedent, or has he ushered in a new era in which designers can focus on better paper folds instead of muscle tone?

It is serious business for paper-plane people, who compete with intensity in a discipline otherwise mostly seen as a hobby for kids or classroom slackers.

Categories: Sports