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Visualizing Left

November 29, 2012 Leave a comment

Driving to the left in Apia, Samoa

[Ho/Reuters*]

I wrote three days ago about Ian Rankin’s latest crime novel, Standing in Another Man’s Grave, in which retired Edinburgh detective John Rebus returns after a five-year absence. It turns out he had been keeping busy as a civilian employee in Edinburgh’s cold case unit, where we find him when the novel opens.

In discussing Rebus’s welcome return, I forgot to note one point that had been on my mind. Not about the book itself, but about my experience in reading it. So this is about me, not Rebus or Rankin. Please excuse the indulgence.

How a reader enters into the world constructed within a book—fiction or non-fiction—is personal and idiosyncratic. It also goes largely unnoticed, however fundamental it is to one’s perception and enjoyment of the text. A character gets out of bed, walks into a restaurant, drives down the road and you hop on for the ride, conjuring images along the way. This is so intrinsic to the reading experience that it hardly merits comment. Yet, as I read Standing in Another Man’s Grave, I kept being shaken into awareness.

The reason is simple. As I explained in describing the book, one of its stars is “the A9, a major Scottish roadway running roughly northeast from Stirling and Bridge of Allan through Auchterarder to Perth, then northwest past Pitlochry and Aviemore to Inverness, continuing still farther north to the outer reaches of northern Scotland, ending at Thurso, the northernmost town on the British mainland. Many of the towns along the way are featured in the book, as Rankin drives back and forth looking for clues and interviewing people.” With all of Rebus’s traveling, I was obliged to visualize him sitting at the wheel, getting in and out of the car, pulling into a gas station (well, petrol station — you know).

Do you see the problem? He was driving in Scotland. On the left side of the road. In a right-side-drive car. I found myself pausing regularly to make sure I had him sitting on the right, driving on the left. This wasn’t as distracting as it might seem. It did, however, make me conscious of the act of visualizing.

My insistence on getting the images right goes back to the summer of 1977, when I spent five weeks in Leeds, followed by ten days in Scotland. While in Leeds, I stayed at the Barrington Court Hotel, a once-luxurious house that was now a modest inn with a mix of overnight and long-term residents. What would once have been a square bedroom of decent size had been split into two narrow rectangles, one of which I occupied, along with a bed, a chair, a dresser, and a coin-operated fireplace/heater. The adjacent half-room was occupied by a Leeds faculty member, whom I would hear noisily arriving every night when the pubs closed.

Each morning, the Scottish proprietor, Mr. Pryde, would serve breakfast in a small dining area off the kitchen. Eggs, ham, and cold toast. Across the hall was the lounge, where guests would spend evenings watching the communal TV. At 9:00, Mr. Pryde would come in with tea and biscuits.

Those lounge evenings were immersions in British culture. Guests were generally businesspeople—such as a salesman who came every week for a night—or family of locals. This wasn’t where the tourists stayed. (Not that Leeds is overrun with tourists.) I don’t remember how we settled on what to watch. I do remember that Mr. Pryde would have words with me if I shut the TV and forgot to unplug it. And I remember visualizing the cars, both on TV and out the window, trying to develop intuition that the left side was the natural side to drive on. This was an assignment I took seriously, so that I would be prepared for my days of rental car driving when I got to Scotland.

In the years since, when reading British books, I give undue attention to driving scenes. Same with movies. I finished Standing in Another Man’s Grave last Friday around noon. Five hours later, we were in the theater watching the new Bond movie, Skyfall (which I wrote about here). And again, in the British scenes, I devoted keen attention to the driving scenes.

It turns out that my visualization efforts in Leeds weren’t entirely successful. I only made one error behind the wheel, but I was lucky it didn’t result in an accident. I needed to turn right on a two-lane highway somewhere in the north. I will never know what I did wrong. What I do know is that as I was into the turn, a car coming from the opposite direction at high speed honked and honked and nearly hit me. I escaped into the side road just in time. Was he driving too fast? Had I even thought to look for oncoming traffic? I thought it was safe to turn, but maybe I wasn’t paying attention. Or maybe I did pay attention and he came from nowhere. I don’t know. What I do know is that I keep visualizing.

——–

*The Guardian used this photo to illustrate an article three years ago about a switch made in Samoa from right-side to left-side driving.

The government made the change to bring Samoa in line with Australia and New Zealand, where some 170,000 expatriate Samoans live. It is cheaper to import cars from there than from right-side-driving countries such as the US.

For now, Samoa will allow cars with steering wheels on either the left or the right side of the vehicle – but all will drive on the left side of the road.

Critics accused the government of failing adequately to prepare drivers, and had predicted traffic chaos and a rise in fatal wrecks.

The switch was ushered in with a two-day national holiday, to keep a limit on traffic, and a three-day ban on alcohol sales, to deter accidents.

Categories: Books, Life

Living in the Limelight

November 29, 2012 Leave a comment

I wrote a series of posts four months ago about our trip to Walla Walla, the centerpiece of which was our two days of behind-the-scenes winery visits. (Day one here and day two here.) In addition to the kindness of winery owners and winemakers in showing us around, we were also blessed by the patient guidance of local wine expert and businessman Philippe. He is the owner of Oak Tradition, purveyor to the trade of barrels, corks, and much more.

Our first stop on day two was Rasa Vineyards. At the time, I wrote:

It is run by two brothers, Pinto and Billo Naravane. Both left the computer industry to start up the winery, Pinto on the business side and Billo as winemaker. As at the wineries the day before, we were the beneficiaries of extraordinary generosity, as Billo spent over an hour with us, telling us stories about the winery, his career path, and the individual wines as we tasted them. He had studied applied math at MIT, then moved on to Stanford for a Master’s in electrical engineering and to Texas for a Ph.D. But he left the PhD program partway through to begin work in the computer industry. When the time came to leave it all behind for wine, he headed to Davis for another Master’s, in their famous wine program.

The mathematical backgrounds of Billo and Pinto are reflected in the names of some of their wines. My friend Paul makes it a point, whenever he encounters a wine with a name that — by intention or chance — has a name with a mathematical connotation, to photograph it and post to Facebook. This is how I first met two Rasa wines, QED and Principia. On first arriving at Rasa, I was delighted to see them. As Billo explains, Rasa is the rare winery that doesn’t display their own name prominently on the label. The conceptual wine name takes pride of place. This is a risky marketing strategy, as illustrated by my lack of awareness of who exactly produces QED and Principia. But Rasa sells what it produces, and is happy to proceed this way. You can see more of their beautiful labels here.

The brothers make more than just attractive labels. The wines were excellent. We bought more of theirs than anyone else’s, including two bottles of the 2008 Creative Impulse, a cab/merlot blend that was our most expensive purchase of the trip. They will need to lie down a while before we open them.

In addition to Creative Impulse, we bought a bottle of Principia and a bottle of Living in the Limelight. They’ve all been lying down in the basement, happily ignored. However, on receipt of our latest club shipment of Porter Creek pinots two weeks ago (see here for a post on last spring’s shipment and links to earlier posts on Porter Creek), I reorganized our reds, prompting me to decide that we should start tasting some of the Rasa and other Walla Walla purchases.

Thanksgiving gave us a natural opportunity. A week ago, I brought up the bottle of Living in the Limelight. What is it? I didn’t remember. The name gives no clue. But the label does say petit verdot, and the website explains:

The 2009 Living in the Limelight comprises of 90% Petit Verdot, 5% Cab Franc, and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. Petit Verdot, a classic Bordeaux varietal, is typically cast in a supporting role – providing acid and color to Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot-dominated wines.

But this Petit Verdot is so compelling, we had to put it in the limelight. In this wine, Petit Verdot is the main actor with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc in supporting roles.

Clever.

More important, the wine is superb. I lack the vocabulary to describe it adequately. Fortunately, the winemaker has no such problem:

This wine is a rarity: a Petit Verdot with finesse, power, and complexity. Blackberry, black plum, dark chocolate, with hints of vanilla and rose petal on the bouquet. Intense notes of blackberry and black cherry on palate, supported by tobacco, dark chocolate, earth, and tar notes. All of these flavors are beautifully focused and framed in substantial, yet silky tannins. The balance between medium-plus acidity, 15% alcohol, fruit extract, and tannins is superb. The finish lingers with pure blackberry and dark chocolate notes. No doubt many will prefer the fruity exuberance of this wine, but properly cellared this wine will gain further complexity as it ages.

We will order more. Then we can be patient and enjoy the complexity.

Categories: Wine

Rebus Returns

November 26, 2012 Leave a comment

Ian Rankin’s latest crime novel, Standing in Another Man’s Grave, was published in the UK earlier this month. As always, I ordered it from UK Amazon rather than waiting for US publication. (The US version appears January 15.)

Five years ago, in Exit Music, Rankin retired his great creation, the Edinburgh detective John Rebus. In the interim, Rankin introduced us to Malcolm Fox, who works in Edinburgh’s internal affairs unit and was featured in The Complaints and The Impossible Dead. On reading The Complaints, I wrote

Is there life after Rebus? If Rankin continues with Fox, his new character, I believe there will be. I wasn’t taken in at first. But then Fox wasn’t interesting at first. The events of the novel change him, or bring out features of his personality that were initially hidden. By the end, he is a richly-drawn character, and another iconoclast in the making. He too upsets and outwits superiors. And yet again, assorted crimes from the seemingly mundane and local to possible corruption at high government levels interweave in unexpected ways — unexpected except that we are so accustomed to such plotting that we know Rankin will find a way to draw them together. Contrived? Sure. But that’s part of the fun, seeing our hero figure out how the pieces fit together while everyone else is clueless.

I’m ready for more.

After finishing The Impossible Dead, I wrote:

I quite enjoyed it. Though based in Edinburgh, the principal character, Malcolm Fox, in only the second novel Rankin has written around him, spends most of his time across the Firth of Forth in Fife. Both Rankin and his greatest character, John Rebus, are Fife natives. It’s not unusual for some action in any Rankin novel to take place across the way, but this time Fife is the center of the story, especially Kirkcaldy, which is essentially due north of Edinburgh across the firth. Fox makes daily crossings of the firth on the road bridge (you know, of course, that the Forth Railway Bridge is one of the world’s great, historic structures), even walking across it once, as he tries to unravel a mysterious death in the 1980s and its connections to violent Scottish nationalist groups of the time. The plotting is intricate, engrossing, and ultimately surprising.

I thought I had let go of Rebus. But since learning that he would return in the new Rankin novel, I have been eager to get my hands on it. As I explained in a post a week ago, it was due to arrive two Wednesdays ago, by which time I was a short ways into Mark Binelli’s Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis. When the Rankin book finally came, two Fridays ago, I read the first ten pages. But I was pretty well hooked on the Binelli book by then and decided to keep going, finishing it Sunday morning.

Only on Tuesday did I return to Standing in Another Man’s Grave, reading the second ten pages, at which point I realized that had I made it that far the day the book arrived, it would have taken precedence over Detroit City. It was that absorbing. Yet, I didn’t settle into it yet. I had other obligations. Then, when I got home Wednesday — Thanksgiving Eve — we celebrated the start of the long weekend by watching Wes Anderson’s latest film, Moonrise Kingdom (which, by the way, I highly recommend).

Only on Thanksgiving morning did I finally give myself over to Standing in Another Man’s Grave. I suppose I would have finished it that night if not for the fact that it was, after all, Thanksgiving. We had dinner and guests to attend to. The final 130 pages had to wait for Friday morning.

How is it? Well, obviously, I loved it. Rebus is back to his old tricks, ignoring or insulting superiors, doggedly following up on clues, getting to the heart of the matter while everyone else has other priorities. He continues to smoke and drink excessively, eat limited quantities of anything resembling real food, yet outperform any other member of the police force despite being viewed as a screw-off. Only his former partner Siobhan Clarke, returning as well, shows any appreciation of his approach and ability, even as she is warned by colleagues that continued association with him could drag down her career.

I should explain that Rebus is no longer a detective. The premise with which Rankin has returned him to duty — duty of a sort — is that he is now a civilian employee within a cold case unit. Moreover, retirement age having been raised, he has the option of applying for his old position, an option he appears in danger of killing with his usual misbehavior.

Warning Rebus explicitly of this danger is Malcolm Fox, who doesn’t much like his methods. Fox is a minor character, first appearing on page 73 and then showing up intermittently. Not a likable one either, given his casting as another of the many Edinburgh police who just don’t get what Rebus is about. Here I was, starting to enjoy Fox. Not anymore. Rankin will have an interesting challenge restoring our sympathy for him, especially if Rebus sticks around.

Another star of the book is the A9, a major Scottish roadway running roughly northeast from Stirling and Bridge of Allan through Auchterarder to Perth, then northwest past Pitlochry and Aviemore to Inverness, continuing still farther north to the outer reaches of northern Scotland, ending at Thurso, the northernmost town on the British mainland. Many of the towns along the way are featured in the book, as Rankin drives back and forth looking for clues and interviewing people. A parallel study of a map of Scotland is essential as one reads the book. Much of this area is new to me: Cromarty Firth, Dornoch Firth, Bonar Bridge, Tongue. I’ve been up as far as Inverness, but that was 35 years ago, and I never made it farther.

Then there’s Jackie Leven, the late Scottish singer-songwriter to whom the book is dedicated. In the opening pages of the book, Rebus recalls Leven’s song about standing in another man’s grave, only to discover that Leven is actually singing about standing in another man’s rain. This gives the book its title. Here is Ian Rankin explaining his own confusion regarding the song’s lyrics:

If you watch, you’ll hear Rankin speak of a mondegreen. If you’re unfamiliar with that term, you’ll enjoy learning more about it here or here.

Finally, here is Jackie Leven (accompanied by Michael Cosgrave) singing about another man’s rain:

Categories: Books

Pasta Carbonara

November 25, 2012 Leave a comment

Andrew Carmellini, chef/owner of TriBeCa’s Locanda Verde, making pasta carbonara

[Daniel Krieger for The New York Times]

Tuesday night, the NYT put up an article by Ian Fisher at their home page about pasta carbonara as a Thanksgiving substitute. As a carbonara lover, I clicked on the article immediately, and found it sufficiently exciting that I thought of writing a post about it. The next morning, I saw that it was the front page feature story in the weekly Wednesday food section, and later in the day I noticed that it was #2 in the NYT list of most e-mailed articles. I wasn’t alone in my fascination with carbonara. And my service as linker to the article might be unnecessary. Yet here I am linking to it, in case you missed it.

Of special interest is the discussion of guanciale versus pancetta.

My wife has more confidence in my cooking skills than I do. When we were posted in Italy (I was the New York Times correspondent in Rome), she volunteered me to make carbonara at a party one summer afternoon in Tuscany. The host was a contessa, the mother of one of our sons’ school friends. I am American, and I could tell most of the guests did not hold much hope.

I hadn’t made much carbonara before and told her, “I’m nervous.”

She said, “You should be.”

It all went terribly. It was too hot for most Italians to enjoy heavy carbonara. I didn’t bring enough guanciale, the cured pig cheeks that for many Italians have become indispensable for carbonara. I had to chuck in some pancetta (pork belly as opposed to cheek) that the host had in the fridge. For this crowd, pancetta simply was not done. I botched the eggs to the point that they were scrambled.

No Italian adult would touch it, except the contessa, who did so with well-bred, fork-plucking politeness. But the children gobbled it down because — and this is the curse and the key to carbonara — eggs, bacon, cheese and pasta taste great, almost no matter what. It’s worth the effort, though, to get right, and that’s what I’ve striven for since, to the point of curing my own guanciale at home, which is less difficult than it sounds. No obsession here, I swear.

Fisher raises a series of questions: “Guanciale, pancetta or plain bacon? Only pecorino cheese, made from sheep’s milk? Or is a bit of Parmesan O.K.? Peas or not? Onion? Whole eggs or yolks? Or, heaven forbid, the ingredient that most divides devotees of a dish that, above all, aims for creaminess: actual cream?” It would appear that the answer is, whatever works.

Andrew Carmellini, the chef and owner of Locanda Verde in Manhattan, studied cooking in Italy but has gone his own way, while keeping true to the dish’s nature. In his version, which he calls Spaghetti Friuliano, after the region in Italy where part of his family comes from, he uses speck, which is like prosciutto, as well as onions, cabbage, eggs, smoked pecorino from Sardinia and, yes, cream. He even finishes it with a little grappa.

After seeing Skyfall last night, Gail and I took a route home that would bring us past a favorite neighborhood restaurant, La Côte Café. In mid afternoon, we had eaten a late lunch of Thanksgiving leftovers. As we passed La Côte Café at around 8:15 PM, we weren’t in need of a full dinner. I suggested that we stop for dessert crepes.

Earlier this year, in converting from La Côte Crêperie to La Côte Café, the restaurant substantially revised their menu. Many of the crepe selections were dropped. Lasagna and pasta carbonara — perhaps the best carbonara in Seattle — were added. This presented a bit of a problem, since we really weren’t there for a full meal. With carbonara on my mind for four days, I had to exercise enormous restraint to stick with ordering just a light salad and a dessert crepe, which I did. Now we have to get back soon so I can satisfy my carbonara craving.

I wonder why French restaurants make such good pasta carbonara. Without doubt, I had my favorite version ever at the beachfront restaurant of the Majestic Hotel in La Baule, on the Brittany coast. That was in 1999, when we were visiting my sister and her family on the occasion of a big birthday for her. We ate there the night we arrived. I had the carbonara then, and again when we returned later in our stay.

I’m thinking that next month, when Joel is back, we can experiment a bit with our own version of pasta carbonara. Gail, what do you think?

Categories: Food

Skyfall: Senior at Last

November 25, 2012 Leave a comment

[Francois Duhamel]

We don’t go out to the movies much. The only sure-fire draw that gets me out of the house to the theater is James Bond. For him, I might even go on opening weekend. I was therefore dismayed on learning in the summer that the latest Bond film would open on November 9. I didn’t think Gail would want to celebrate her birthday on the 10th by seeing Skyfall, and the day after that I would be flying to Chicago. The next weekend, I’d have a visitor to entertain on Friday and we’d be going to the symphony on Saturday. Thus, we’d have to wait two weeks, or until yesterday.

During Thanksgiving dinner, Gail suggested to Jessica that she and Bryan join us. Yesterday morning, I looked into buying tickets online, not that I thought we would need to. I realize the prices shouldn’t have surprised me, but given that we don’t get out to the movies much, the $11.50 ticket price was indeed unexpected. Between that and the $1.50 per ticket fee, I was easily convinced that we could pass on online purchasing.

Usually my eyes pass right over discount rates. Seniors, students, children—I don’t care. But, hey, I’m getting up there in years. This time, I took a closer look. The senior price was $10.50. Not much of a discount. Yet, maybe I qualified. That would be fun! The few times I’ve thought to ask about discounts, like on the Washington State Ferries a few months ago, I learn that I’m too young.

Well, thank you AMC Theatres! I can reap the savings at last, albeit only a dollar. That made my day.

As for Skyfall, having enjoyed the first two Daniel Craig Bond movies, I found this one disappointing. I dare not give too much away, so I won’t say much. My main criticism is that I found the story weak. Its focus on M — the head of British intelligence — provided a welcome opportunity for Judi Dench to have a larger role than usual. But I found the depiction of her relationships with Bond and the villain unconvincing. And with the emphasis on these relationships, there wasn’t much plot development.

However, it seems that I was missing something. Peter Bradshaw’s review in The Guardian a month ago is full of praise:

This is the seventh time Judi Dench has played the enigmatic spy-chief M. But it is only in this storming new Bond movie that her M has really been all that she could be. Under the stylish direction of Sam Mendes, Dench’s M is quite simply the Bond girl to end all Bond girls. Watching this, I thought: of course. How could I have missed it? The real tension isn’t with Moneypenny, but with the boss herself. Now M is an imperious, subtly oedipal intelligence-matriarch with the double-O boys under her thumb. She’s treating them mean. She’s keeping them keen. And she is rewarded with passionate loyalty, varying with smouldering resentment. It’s a combination with its own unspoken eroticism, and it has also created the conditions for one of the most memorable Bond villains in recent times. …

The 50th anniversary of the big-screen Bond was the right time to pull off something big. Skyfall is a hugely enjoyable action spectacular, but more grounded and cogent than the previous and disappointing outing, Quantum of Solace. …

Daniel Craig’s Bond (above) looks older, more careworn, slightly more jug-eared. This is a Bond who has something to prove, and who could be damaged goods, physically and even mentally. Even at his lowest, however, he is still capable of pulling off a very scary drinking trick involving a scorpion. But now he must face one of his tastiest adversaries ever – the chilling Silva, played by Javier Bardem.

I may have to go back to see it again.

Categories: Life, Movies

An Evening with Manny

November 25, 2012 Leave a comment

[From his website]

One Saturday a few months ago, Seattle Symphony single concert tickets went on sale at 10:00 AM. I was ready. Unfortunately, the website wasn’t. There were long hang-ups and, more frustrating, repeated messages that our purchases didn’t go through, meaning we lost our selected seats and would have to start over again. After an hour of frustration and long holds on the phone, I eventually emerged with the desired tickets. Among the concerts I had chosen was one featuring Emanual Ax playing Brahms’ second piano concerto.

I have long felt a bond with Manny. He’s about my age, a fellow New Yorker with similar background. Well, except that I wasn’t born in Lvov of Holocaust survivors, didn’t emigrate to Winnipeg on the way to New York, didn’t study at Juilliard. On the other hand, there’s the wedding I went to of a good college friend of mine, while we were in grad school, flying into Ithaca in the morning, hanging out in the hotel with other friends of the bride and groom, among which was someone named Manny who was going to have to depart that evening to get back to the city for a concert. Pretty interesting guy, lots of good stories. I never did catch his last name. But I realized a few days later, back in my Cambridge apartment, that he sure did look like the pianist pictured on the cover of one of my record albums. I’ve been a fan ever since.

Our seats last week were in the fifth row, left of center, which is to say, we were pretty darn close to the piano. Maybe not ideal for a balanced sound. Ideal if you wanted to study Manny’s pedal technique — when I stared straight ahead, my line of vision went straight through the pedals.

The concerto opened the program. Not only was the piano close; so was Manny. Fifteen feet away, allowing us to observe his facial expressions as we listened to the music. I can’t imagine how many hundreds of times he has played the Brahms concerto. Yet, he appeared enthralled by the music, and fully enjoying the partnership with the orchestra. The magnificent adagio features the principal cellist as co-soloist, and Manny took special pleasure in trading the lead back and forth with Seattle’s cellist, Efe Baltacigil. (More about Baltacigil here. This is just his second year with the symphony. He was outstanding.)

Following the concerto, on being called back to the stage for a second time, Manny sat at the piano and explained that it would be natural, since the Brahms piece is essentially for two soloists, to do an encore for both piano and cello. He and Baltacigil then performed the slow movement of Chopin’s cello sonata. An unexpected and most welcome treat. (Below I’m inserting a youtube performance of it by cellist Umberto Clerici and pianist Diego Mingolla.)

Following the intermission, the symphony played Henri Dutilleux’s The Shadows of Time. As the program notes explain, Seattle conductor Ludovic Morlot and the symphony have “embarked on a survey of the orchestral music of Henri Dutilleux.” The piece consists of five short sections, during one of which three boy soloists sing “Pourquoi nous? Pourquoi l’étoile” (Why us? Why the star?) several times over. The programmatic significance of this escaped me, but on the whole I enjoyed the piece, which I hadn’t heard before. As I did Richard Strauss’s tone poem, Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks. A fine show piece for the orchestra. But I wouldn’t have come for those pieces alone. I was there for Manny, and he was great.

Categories: Music

Detroit City, 2

November 18, 2012 Leave a comment

Wednesday night I wrote about a book I was a short ways into, Mark Binelli’s Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis. As much as I was enjoying it, I anticipated putting it aside once Ian Rankin’s latest Edinburgh crime novel, Standing in Another Man’s Grave, arrived from the UK (which it was supposed to do by Wednesday, according to UK Amazon). It came Friday.

I had a long day Friday, first teaching, then spending almost all of the next ten hours with a long-awaited visitor from Texas State University. On arriving home, I was excited to see the Amazon package. Without delay, I read the first ten pages, in which Rankin’s great character John Rebus makes his return five years after retiring in Exit Music. But I was missing Binelli, and Detroit. Yesterday morning I surprised myself by putting Rebus aside and returning to Binelli, finishing his book this morning.

The book is unexpectedly powerful. Not a systematic study of the politics, economics, history, or sociology of Detroit. No grand theories. No vision. Just a series of stories of the lives lived by Detroit residents. For example, chapter 10 tells the tale of a murder, the trial of the two young men accused of the crime, and assorted family and friends. Especially notable is the portrait of the mother of one of the accused murderers, who reports him to the police on learning that he may have done it. After the trial, Binelli catches up with one of the likely murderer’s friends. (I should perhaps explain that these young men are all unemployed. They deal drugs. They take metal from abandoned buildings. They get by.) Binelli writes:

Overman said he was still scrapping, but he also planned to build a three-wheeled bicycle cart—he’s a skilled welder—large enough to carry five hundred bottles of water, which he could sell for a dollar a bottle at some of the free outdoor concerts downtown. As we approached his apartment, Overman pointed to a sign advertising new condominiums “starting in the 150’s.” He shook his head. “Everyone waiting on a list as long as a scroll to get into low-income housing, and they building these condominiums? It seems to me like they moving the upper class here and the lower class across 8 Mile [the northern boundary of Detroit].”

His voice shifting to a skeptical murmur, he read the sign’s tagline: “Be Part of Detroit’s Revitalization.” Then he chuckled. “You know they not talking to us.” By “us” he wasn’t including me, of course.

“Unless that’s a hundred and fifty dollars,” he said. “You feel me?”

A few pages earlier, Binelli wonders why no one else in the media is covering the trial.

The unspoken attitude toward violence in Detroit today isn’t radically different from that of Mayor Charles Bowles, who held office during the [bootlegging] Purple Gang’s heyday. “It is just as well to let these gangsters kill each other off, if they are so minded,” he said in 1930, after a murder spree in which twelve bootleggers were shot and killed over the course of eleven days. “You know the scientists employ one set of parasites to destroy another. May not that be the plan of Providence in these killings among the bandits?”

David Morgan Jr. [the murder victim] was no bandit, of course. But expand Bowles’s sentiment only slightly and even some of the best-intended ideas for reinventing the city begin to take on a disturbing purgative aspect, undertones of a cleansing that leaves no room for the likes of Morgan or Jermaine Overman or Mary Howell [the murderer’s mother]. Aside from the burned-out buildings and overgrown lots, what’s missing from the Tomorrowland renderings of Detroit 2030, with its monorails and Christmas tree farms and office parks and Apple stores? Oh, right: poor people.

You come to feel for many of these people, such as the students and principal at Catherine Ferguson Academy, a Detroit public school for teenage mothers that has a high graduation and college acceptance rate. Or the people taking second jobs as firefighters in Highland Park, the tiny city (in land area) surrounded by Detroit where Henry Ford first built a factory a century ago. With the closing of the factory, the building of a highway right through the middle, and ultimately the loss of a financial base, Highland Park became an even worse version of Detroit. So many fires were set that firefighters from around the country would come to visit and learn.

Not all the stories are depressing. Even those that are leave you admiring the character of the people Binelli introduces. It’s tempting to draw conclusions about the morality of political leaders who turn their backs on our cities. Like Binelli, I will refrain from doing so.

Categories: Books, Life

Angell Reflections

November 18, 2012 Leave a comment

When I got home Thursday evening, I paged through the newly arrived New Yorker and found a short piece by Roger Angell, which I immediately read. In it, Angell writes movingly about his late wife Carol, in ways I can’t intelligently capture except by quoting. And even then I would do Angell a disservice, as the piece should be read in full.

Alas, the online version is behind the New Yorker’s paywall, so the link to it won’t get you very far unless you’re a subscriber. If you are, read it. If not, though I have misgivings about quoting fragments, here’s a taste:

What the dead don’t know piles up, though we don’t notice it at first. They don’t know how we’re getting along without them, of course, dealing with the hours and days that now accrue so quickly, and, unless they divined this somehow in advance, they don’t know that we don’t want this inexorable onslaught of breakfasts and phone calls and going to the bank, all this stepping along, because we don’t want anything extraneous to get in the way of what we feel about them or the ways we want to hold them in mind. But they’re in a hurry too, or so it seems. Because nothing is happening with them, they are flying away, over that wall, while we are still chained and handcuffed to the weather and the iPhone, to the hurricane and the election and to the couple that’s recently moved in downstairs, in Apartment 2-S, with a young daughter and a new baby girl, and we’re flying off in the opposite direction at a million miles an hour. It would take many days now, just to fill Carol in.

What Carol doesn’t know now is shocking, let’s face it, and I think even her best friends must find themselves thinking about her with a certain new softness or sweetness, as if she were a bit backward. Carol, try to keep up a little, can’t you?

Categories: Life, Writing

Met Museum Stroll

November 15, 2012 Leave a comment

We’ve been back from New York nine days, since which I’ve been to Chicago and back. Before the NY trip fades, I want to describe our brief outing to the Metropolitan Museum of Art on our final morning.

Once done packing, we had a couple of free hours before we were to meet my sister and brother-in-law for lunch at Cafe Boulud (which I described here), from which we would head to JFK. Off to the Met we walked. Here’s what we saw:

1. Bernini: Sculpting in Clay. From the website:

To visualize lifesize or colossal marbles, the great Roman Baroque sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598–1680) began by making small, spirited clay models. Fired as terracotta, these studies and related drawings preserve the first traces of the thought process that evolved into some of the most famous statuary in the city, including the fountains in the Piazza Navona and the angels on the Ponte Sant’Angelo. This exhibition assembles for the first time some fifty of these bozzetti and modelli, as well as thirty chalk or pen sketches alongside three small-scale bronzes and a marble group. Through connoisseurship and a comprehensive campaign of scientific examination, the selection of models addresses the issue of what separates the hand of the master from the production of his large workshop.

Or, from Karen Wilkin’s review in today’s WSJ:

The stellar exhibition “Bernini: Sculpting in Clay,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art offers an intimate view of this most public of Counter-Reformation artists, making us privy to the studies that preceded the celebrated monuments executed by the master and his busy workshop. It’s like watching Bernini think, and it makes him seem as present and vital as he must have seemed to his colleagues and rivals in 17th-century Rome, all of them undoubtedly frustrated at his getting all the best commissions but surely awed by his talent.

Spend some time with the works elegantly installed in the Met’s Lehman Wing and you understand just why Bernini was so often the first choice of popes, cardinals, the nobility and, though the project ended badly, Louis XIV.

I didn’t give this exhibition the time it deserved. Mostly, as we wandered around, I realized that I needed to get back to Rome to spend more time wandering the squares so that I could see the works for which these studies were made. Some photographs helped.

2. To get from the Lehman wing, which housed the Bernini show, up a floor and over to the Asian wing, we passed Medieval European works, including a case of extraordinary northern European Christian objects from the 12th century or so. And this, Lorenzo Monaco’s “Intercession of Christ and the Virgin,” from Santa Maria del Fiori cathedral in Florence, painted before 1402.

3. Colors of the Universe: Chinese Hardstone Carvings. From the website:

The stone carvings of the Qing period can be grouped in three categories: personal adornments such as rings, bracelets, and pendants; articles for daily use (mainly in the scholar’s studio) such as brush holders, water pots, and seals; and display pieces such as copies of antiques, miniature mountains, and animal and human figures, the latter being the largest of the group. The carvings can also be classified by their decorative style: archaic or classical, meaning their shapes were derived from ancient ritual vessels; “Western,” which bore the influence of contemporary Mughal art from northern India; and new or modern, meaning novel shapes and designs created during the Qing dynasty.

This is a small show, occupying just one room in the East Asian decorative arts galleries on the third-floor annex in the Asian wing. Viewing all the pieces didn’t take long. Some are astonishing. Here’s one:

Dongfang Shuo Stealing the Peach of Longevity, Qing dynasty, amber

4. Buddhism Along the Silk Road: 5th-8th Centuries. Another single-room show in another third-floor annex of the Asian wing. From the website:

Drawing together objects from India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the western reaches of Central Asia—regions connected in the sixth century A.D. through trade, military conquest, and the diffusion of Buddhism—the exhibition illuminates a remarkable moment of artistic exchange. At the roots of this transnational connection is the empire established the end of the fifth century by the Huns (Hunas or Hephthalites) that extended from Afghanistan to the northern plains of India. Although this political system soon disintegrated into chaos, over the next century trade routes connecting India to the western reaches of the Central Asian Silk Road continued to link these distant communities, facilitating ideological exchange and financing the production of Buddhist imagery of great artistic sophistication.

A representative piece:

Seated Buddha Flanked by Bodhisattvas, 7th–8th century, Pakistan (Swat Valley), marble

5. Chinese pottery. Some pieces along the walls on the balcony above the great court as we walked south along the 5th Avenue side of the museum from the Asian wing to the Mesopotamian rooms.

6. Assyrian art and the Assyrian royal court — the Assyrian palace of Ashurnasirpal II at Nimrud in northern Mesopotamia. We spent some time in this room. Nothing new — part of the permanent collection. But still wonderful. Here’s a description:

The Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery for Assyrian Art has been arranged to evoke the main audience hall of the ninth-century B.C. Assyrian palace of Ashurnasirpal II at Nimrud in northern Mesopotamia.

The reliefs that line the walls come from various rooms in the palace, and were excavated during the mid-nineteenth century in one of the earliest archaeological expeditions to the Near East. Guarded by a colossal winged, human-headed lion and bull, wearing the horns of divinity, the reliefs depict the king performing a ritual, surrounded by attendants and supernatural creatures facing stylized trees. The famous Standard Inscription of Ashurnasirpal, which records his achievements, runs across each relief panel. It is written in cuneiform, the script used for the Akkadian language then in wide usage throughout the Near East.

7. European paintings. To finish, we made a short loop within the European painting collection: from late Medieval Italian paintings through early Renaissance to the Titian-Tintoretto-Veronese room, doubling back in reverse chronological order through Flemish rooms, from Bruegel (I’ve long been a sucker for this one)

Pieter Bruegel, The Harvesters, 1565

to van Eyck.

Jan Eyck and assistant, The Crucifixion and The Last Judgment, ca. 1390-1441

Not the best photos. Sorry about that. You can do better at the Met website.

With that we headed down, picked up our belongings in the coatroom, returned to the hotel, closed our bags, checked out, and met my sister and brother-in-law in the lobby for lunch next door, bringing our New York trip to a close.

Categories: Museums, Travel

Detroit City

November 14, 2012 Leave a comment

People embarrassed to be found with a copy of Playboy would explain they read it for the interviews. (And by the way, as the famous 1976 Jimmy Carter interview, demonstrated, the interviews were worth reading.) When caught with the Wall Street Journal, I explain that I read it for the book reviews.

Just a week ago, I wrote about putting aside the new book I was reading, Theodore Ross’s Am I a Jew?: Lost Tribes, Lapsed Jews, and One Man’s Search for Himself, in favor of Richard Russo’s new memoir Elsewhere, thanks to Amy Finnerty’s WSJ review. I finished Elsewhere on Saturday, the same day that Cameron McWhirter’s WSJ review of Mark Binelli’s Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis appeared. I was tempted to downloaded the book immediately, but it wasn’t available, the publications date being yesterday. Thus I returned to Am I a Jew?, anticipating that I would put it aside yet again with the publication of Binelli’s book.

Turns out, I finished Ross on the airplane ride home from Chicago Monday night, and with not a minute to spare. Just seconds after I read the last page, the flight attendant told us to put our electronic devices away. On awakening yesterday morning, I downloaded Detroit City Is the Place to Be.

What’s the book’s attraction? I’ve written before about the affection Gail and I have for Detroit. About reading Paul Clemens’ Punching Out: One Year in a Closing Auto Plant. And reading his earlier masterpiece Made in Detroit: A South of 8-Mile Memoir. About two visits to Detroit in the winter of 2009. No point reviewing all that. As for Binelli’s book, here is the publisher’s description:

Once America’s capitalist dream town, Detroit is our country’s greatest urban failure, having fallen the longest and the farthest. But the city’s worst crisis yet (and that’s saying something) has managed to do the unthinkable: turn the end of days into a laboratory for the future. Urban planners, land speculators, neopastoral agriculturalists, and utopian environmentalists—all have been drawn to Detroit’s baroquely decaying, nothing-left-to-lose frontier.

With an eye for both the darkly absurd and the radically new, Detroit-area native Mark Binelli has chronicled this convergence. Throughout the city’s “museum of neglect”—its swaths of abandoned buildings, its miles of urban prairie—he tracks both the blight and the signs of its repurposing, from the school for pregnant teenagers to a beleaguered UAW local; from metal scrappers and gun-toting vigilantes to artists reclaiming abandoned auto factories; from the organic farming on empty lots to GM’s risky wager on the Volt electric car; from firefighters forced by budget cuts to sleep in tents to the mayor’s realignment plan (the most ambitious on record) to move residents of half-empty neighborhoods into a viable, new urban center.

Sharp and impassioned, Detroit City Is the Place to Be is alive with the sense of possibility that comes when a city hits rock bottom. Beyond the usual portrait of crime, poverty, and ruin, we glimpse a longshot future Detroit that is smaller, less segregated, greener, economically diverse, and better functioning—what could be the boldest reimagining of a post-industrial city in our new century.

And an excerpt from the WSJ review:

[Binelli] is also an excellent writer and a sensitive and careful reporter. Mr. Binelli tells us early in his book that he wants to do something more than simply recount Detroit’s decline. “Detroit-as-whodunit had been done, ad nauseam,” he writes. “I hoped to discover something new about the city—specifically, what happens to a once-great place after it has been used up and discarded? Who sticks around and tries to make things work again?”

Along the way, Mr. Binelli gives the reader a condensed history of the city, from French settlers to Prohibition mobsters to today’s corrupt politicians. He does a great job of presenting the arc of Detroit’s 20th century: its rise as automotive capital of the world, its economic apex in the 1950s and its thudding diminishment. Mr. Binelli paints vivid portraits of key figures in the city’s past …

We learn what it is like to live in Detroit’s decimated neighborhoods, as Mr. Binelli wanders about talking with various eccentric characters, all with personal horror stories about getting by in a city in free fall. …

A return trip to Detroit beckoned, with Binelli as my guide, and I didn’t resist. I’m about 30 pages in, as Binelli sets the stage. So far so good. The big question: what will I do when Ian Rankin’s latest, Standing in Another Man’s Grave, arrives from the UK? The estimated arrival date was today. No deal. Maybe tomorrow, in which case I may leave Detroit temporarily for Edinburgh.

Categories: Books