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Blood-Dark Track, 2

March 3, 2013 Leave a comment

blood-darktrack

I’m making good progress on my New Year’s resolution to read fewer books this year. Only yesterday did I finish Joseph O’Neill’s Blood-Dark Track: A Family History, which I wrote about three weeks ago. In that post, I quoted from Colin Harrison’s 2002 review in the NYT:

As a boy, [O’Neill] became aware that his Turkish grandfather, Joseph Dakad, had been imprisoned in Palestine during World War II. ”A shiver of an explanation accompanied this information,” O’Neill writes; ”the detention had something to do with spying for the Germans.” He also learned that his Irish grandfather, James O’Neill, had been jailed in Ireland during the same war, a member of the Irish Republican Army. But in neither case were more details forthcoming. O’Neill’s parents rarely discussed the men whose names he shared.

”Blood-Dark Track” is O’Neill’s reconstruction of the lives of his grandfathers, what he calls ”a slow, idiotic awakening” that for the reader is anything but. Rather, the book is an enormously intelligent plunge into the World War II era that involves, among other elements, an unsolved 65-year-old murder, a rusted pistol, clandestine train travel and assignations in the dark. O’Neill, who is the author of two novels, adeptly makes scene and character where otherwise there might be only chronology, but he also draws on his experience as a lawyer for insight into the Realpolitik of armies, embassies, prisons and families — or anywhere else men and power inevitably collide.

O’Neill’s account of his grandfathers’ lives and milieus is riveting. The book’s pace varies, as we alternate between narrative passages of family history; O’Neill’s meetings in Ireland, Turkey, and Israel with family members and others (or their descendants) whose lives overlapped the two grandfathers’; and musings on the decisions his grandfathers made in complex political circumstances.

O’Neill’s Turkish grandfather appears to have had little understanding of just what those circumstances were, as his hometown of Mersin becomes a World War II crossroad between Europe and the Middle East, with Germans, French, and British routinely passing through. The Irish grandfather, in contrast, is savvier politically, and well connected with IRA leadership in Cork.

Looking back, I see that I marked three passages. I’ll quote from them.

First, a description of Irish grandfather Jim O’Neill.

He believed, for example, in using physical force on his sons. If, driving his car, you braked going into a curve, he’d whack your ear from the passenger seat. … Jim, with his limited education, was not one to view argument as a vehicle of enlightenment. Even allowing for this, my father still couldn’t fathom exactly what my grandfather’s problem was. “Joe, he was so irrational; I couldn’t rationalize the violence at all.” My father told me this one morning in 1996. We were driving to Oxford, where later that day the university would confer a degree on my younger sister, Elizabeth. … “I used to dread him coming home at night. I was petrified he’d find a reason to punch or kick me. Your mother said to me, maybe you had misconceptions. Well, those right hooks and left crochets were not misconceptions.” …

“Years later, I came back to Ireland as a married man and I took him out for a drink. ‘There are some things I’d like to clear up,” I said, and I asked him why he’d behaved in the way he had. He said things like, ‘You’ve got to be cruel to be kind.’ I said to him, ‘Everything you did in your life, I swear I’ll do the opposite.’ And that’s how it turned out. His intolerance, his failure to explain anything—they’ve acted as spurs for me.” We sat for a little while in silence, traveling in rain. Then my father said—and here his ambivalence about Jim, whose name he gave to my younger brother surfaced—”You know, having said all that, if he walked through the door today I’d be very comfortable with him. I’d have no problem having a beer and a chat. And if he hadn’t been my father, I’m sure I’d have liked and respected him as a friend. There was a lot about him that was admirable. … Ireland in those days was a different world, you wouldn’t believe how narrow and bleak things were. Yet, in spite of it all, he managed to bring up a family of ten kids. … He was a relentless worker,” my father said. “He worked for us night and day.”

In trying to determine why his grandfather Joseph Dakak was detained and imprisoned by the British, O’Neill investigates the case of a fellow detainee, Nazim Gandour, whom Joseph believed was spying on him for the British but who appears to have been a victim as well.

The Gandour affair undermined any notion that the fact of internment was some kind of indication of the existence of good grounds for internment; because the closer one looked into the matter, the more apparent it became that the smoke surrounding Gandour was traceable not to the fumes produced by the wilful confusions of the attachés and the secretaries and the lieutenant-colonels. In the end there was little doubt that the treatment of Nazim Gandour was, applying normal standards of justice, almost comically unfair. He was not charged with, let alone convicted of, any offence. He was denied access to a lawyer. He was detained indefinitely, by security forces accountable to no one, on the grounds of mere suspicion. He was not properly, if at all, informed of that which he was suspected of having done; and—most bizarrely of all—the suspect ors themselves were unsure about what specific wrongs they suspected Gandour of … not one of these bureaucratic Chinese whisperers was able to grasp or spell out precisely that the case against Nazim Gandour was. Then again, there never was a case against Gandour as such. … his fate—from his arrest to his eventual release—was in the hands of persons with no real interesting (as Normal Mayers put it) “the furtherance of justice”; and Joseph Dakak, it could be assumed, was subject to the same regime.

This sounds eerily familiar. War comes in the door; the rule of law goes out.

In the passage below, O’Neill reflects on his own secondary education at the British School in the Netherlands. (I should explain that what I call his Turkish family was really a Syrian Christian family that had moved up the Mediterranean coast to Mersin and for whom French was still a language of the home, along with Arabic.)

The students were mainly the children of diplomats and of scientists and technocrats working for large enterprises like the European Space and Technology Centre, Shell Oil, and Unilever. It was a multinational set-up: I had British, Italian, Gambian, Australian, Portuguese friends. We were all in the same boat, pleasantly adrift from our native land. Necessariy, our relationship with that place was, to a greater or lesser degree, fantastical. For the non-British, the matter was doubly complicated, since in addition to cultivating an expatriate conception of our place of origin we had to construct a relationship with England, whose culture and educational qualifications we were acquiring at school and whose universities and jobs beckoned. For those of us from two different non-British countries, things were triply unstraightforward; quadruply so if, like me and my siblings, you spoke Dutch and hung out for many years with Dutch friends; and, finally, quintuple tricky if, on top of the aforementioned complexities, you spoke French at home.

But it never occurred to me, faced with Turkish, English, Dutch and French possibilities, to relinquish or even question my identity as an Irishman—not even when, walking as a teenager in The Hague, a couple of Dutch girls I’d never seen in my life shouted, “Vuile Turk!” (Filthy Turk!) at me.

These passages are by no means representative in terms of the book’s scope and its depth. But they are representative of O’Neill’s superb writing. His insights into the Irish political situation of the last century are particularly enlightening.

Categories: Books

Birthday dinner

March 3, 2013 1 comment

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Even though I don’t have a birthday this year, we still celebrated a few times in recent days, most notably two nights ago when Gail cooked dinner for 13. And what a dinner it was! If only I had taken some photos. In their absence—and in the absence of any ability on my part to convey the wonderful food in words—all I can do is describe the menu.

Gail laid out a cheese platter, crackers, and olives to start. I missed all that. I was busy planning the wine, organizing beverages, getting enough chairs around the dining table, then getting everyone seated and serving drinks.

Gail partially plated the food in the kitchen with Chilean sea bass and black rice. The sea bass had been marinated in a mix of saki, mirin, white miso, and more, then dressed in sesame oil and soy sauce. There was green onion too, and maybe more. The rice was served plain. In a bowl for us to dish out was sesame noodles with pea pods, red peppers, scallions, and again probably some other vegetables. Another bowl had the salad, consisting of red leaf lettuce, arugula, peas, asparagus, and a champagne-vinegar-olive oil-mustard vinaigrette.

I had selected three red wines to serve with the meal. Given that we had just the one course before dessert, this wasn’t exactly a wine pairing. Just a sequence of wines I thought would be interesting to try. And I didn’t sequence them well, because I wasn’t sure we’d need more than two bottles. (Not everyone was drinking wine.) The one I put in reserve, which we did get to, should have been first.

We began with Stryker Sonoma‘s 2002 Monte Rosso Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. We had received two bottles of it in our club shipment in the fall, with winemaker Tim Hardin explaining that “during the 2002 harvest, I brought in an exceptional crop from Monte Rosso Vineyard and decided that we would age 50 cases … for our Club Members. I’ve released this library selection exactly 10 years to the month. The wine shows us just how age-worthy our wines have become.” It was superb. I wish we had bought more.

In the description of the 2005 vintage, Monte Rosso is described as “one of the oldest and most celebrated vineyards in Sonoma County. Perched upon the Mayacamas range at over 1000’ elevation, it is named for its distinct red soil comprised of mineral-rich decomposed volcanic rock. Difficult growing conditions produce grapes of uncommon character and result in fabulous, age-worthy wines.”

Next was McCrea Cellars‘ 2006 Sirocco, a southern Rhone style blend (41% mourvèdre, 36% grenache, 13% syrah, and 5% each counoise and consult) from Washington State that I wrote about two months ago. It has been one of our favorites recently and we were eager to share it.

Last was Porter Creek‘s 2009 Hillside Vineyard old vine Pinot Noir. It’s no longer available. From their description of the 2010 vintage, we are told:

Among the oldest Pinot Noir plantings in the Russian River Valley, this vineyard produces a wine that demonstrates the multi-layered complexity achieved only with old vines and very low yields. Shows an incredible range of fruit and a density, leading toward age worthiness. Planted in 1974 and yields just 1 to 1.5 tons per acre.

As Porter Creek club members for a little over a year, we’ve tried several of their pinots, but this was our first from Hillside Vineyard. It didn’t seem to be as popular with our guests as the others, for which I blame myself, both for my poor sequencing of the wines and for opening it while it still had aging to do. I thought it was great myself. Maybe my favorite of the three. But no doubt it will be even better with a little more time.

Oh, dessert. Boy was that a treat. Talk about labors of love. Gail decided to create a version of the Jewish deli classic seven-layer cake, or what is essentially the same thing, Hungarian Dobos torte. (See also here.) She made nine layers, as it turned out. As best I can tell, the nine layers came from making three separate thin cakes, icing them, stacking them, then cutting the result in thirds and stacking again. Delicate work, resulting in the most wonderful of desserts.

The end result: thirteen well-fed and happy people. Thank you Gail.

Categories: Food

TV Floor Plans

March 3, 2013 Leave a comment

seinfeldapt

A hat tip to our friend Laura for posting a link on Facebook yesterday to Aisha Harris’s piece at Slate, See the Floor Plans of Your Favorite Characters’ Home. Harris explains that “recreating the living spaces of famous characters through detailed floor plans is a popular pastime,” and provides examples and links, crediting interior designer Iñaki Aliste Lizarralde for some of the best designs.

I don’t want to take too much from Harris’s piece. You should click and see it at Slate. Or, if the example above intrigues you, go straight to Lizarralde’s website, where you can view plans, buy photos, or buy canvases. Enjoy studying floor plans for the Simpsons’ home, Lucy’s apartment, and more.

Categories: Architecture, Television

Kenwood House 2

March 3, 2013 Leave a comment

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I wrote two weeks ago about Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough: The Treasures of Kenwood House, London, the new exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum whose opening we had to miss because of a conflict. Recall the overview offered at the SAM website, courtesy of SAM curator Chiyo Ishikawa:

Within the neoclassical Kenwood House at Hampstead Heath on the outskirts of London, resides a magnificent painting collection known as the Iveagh Bequest. Kenwood is home to an exceptional collection of Old Master paintings, including major works by Gainsborough, Hals, Rembrandt, Reynolds, Romney, Turner, Van Dyck, and many others. The Iveagh Bequest was donated to Great Britain by Edward Cecil Guinness, 1st Earl of Iveagh (1847–1927) and heir to the world’s most successful brewery. Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough: Treasures of Kenwood House, London, a selection of approximately 50 masterpieces from the collection, will tour American museums for the first time. Among other treasures, the exhibition provides a rare opportunity to see Rembrandt’s late Portrait of the Artist (ca. 1665), which has never left Europe before.

The Earl of Iveagh’s personal collection was shaped by the tastes of the Belle Époque—Europe’s equivalent to America’s Gilded Age. His purchases reveal a preference for the portraiture, landscape, and seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish paintings that could typically be found in English aristocratic collections. Since the earl was a newcomer to London emigrating from his native Ireland, he may have selected works that would help him fit in with his peers and elevate his social standing.

Kenwood House is a property of English Heritage, described at its website as “the Government’s statutory adviser on the historic environment. Officially known as the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England, we are an executive Non-Departmental Public Body sponsored by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.”

Our one consolation on missing the opening was that we knew we would see the exhibition soon. Back in December, we had received an invitation from English Heritage CEO Simon Thurley to attend a “drinks reception, followed by a private tour of the exhibition with our Senior Curator, Dr Susan Jenkins.” Though puzzled that I had made the invite list, I wasn’t puzzled about how to reply, immediately saying yes on behalf of Gail and myself. English Heritage fundraising director Ian Vallance responded with confirmation.

Last Monday was the day. Inasmuch as we were told to come to a drinks reception, we thought it best to have a light meal beforehand. We parked at SAM, then crossed the street to the Four Seasons Hotel for light snacks at ART, the restaurant I raved about two months ago after we ate there with my cousin John and Joan. Ordering off the lounge menu, we had Uli’s Merguez sausage soft tacos, trio of potatoes, and Dungeness crab cake bites. Uli’s is the local sausage maker just a block up at Pike Place Market. Each taco came with a single sausage, crisp shallots, and raita, and they were fabulous. The potato trio consisted of fries, potato wedges, and tater tots, with a spicy ketchup and another dip that I’ve forgotten. An excellent start to the evening.

We crossed back to SAM a few minutes early, but guests had already arrived, wine and sparkling water were being served, and hors d’oeuvres from Taste (the restaurant one floor below) were being passed. Cocktail tables were set up in SAM’s large entry space. There weren’t many guests. Eventually twenty showed up, by my count. Soon we were talking with Ian about the show’s previous stops in Houston and Milwaukee, its final stop in Little Rock, his trips to each of the exhibitions, the renovation being done on Kenwood House, and more. Other guests joined us, as well as the new SAM director Kimerly Rorschach. She had previously been director at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, which we visited last April. I mentioned our visit, and soon we were talking about life in Chapel Hill, where she and her family lived and where Joel is now.

We also chatted with some of the other guests, including a well-known Seattle couple who seemed as puzzled as to why they were at the reception as we were, which was reassuring. And with Simon, who like Ian was thoroughly charming.

The time came for the program. Simon gave us some background on English Heritage and on Kenwood House. He introduced Susan Jenkins, asking if she wanted to make some remarks before bringing us upstairs to the exhibition. She kept it short and simple: “Follow me.”

And so we did, up two flights and over to the exhibitions first room. The next forty-five minutes were sheer delight, as Susan told us about the house, the collection, and two or three paintings in each gallery room. Many of the paintings are portraits, and Susan also filled us in on the people portrayed.

You can see many of the portraits at the SAM website. Clicking on each one brings up additional information. For instance, you can click on Frans Hals’ portrait of Pieter van den Broecke (included at the top of this post) and learn:

The Dutch seaman Pieter van den Broecke began his career trading fabrics in West Africa. He eventually took over a company that dominated the Dutch trade in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. In this portrait by Frans Hals, he’s 48 years old and wearing a gold chain that marks his 17 years of service with the Dutch East India Company.

He and the artist were close friends. The merchant seaman actually attended the baptism of Hals’s daughter Susanna.

The result of such rare chemistry between sitter and painter, critics note, is the dazzling portrait you see here.

Hals was the type of painter who worked fast and he liked his subjects to take up most of the canvas. This portrait was painted in 1633, a time when both artist and subject were at the height of their careers. That could have been why Guinness was attracted to it in the first place: a portrait of a successful Protestant, fortysomething merchant—much like himself.

Or, click on this Joshua Reynolds portrait of Mrs. Tollemache as “Miranda”

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and learn:

Here’s another portrait of a subject transfigured as a historical or fictional character. This time it’s Anna Maria Lewis, wife of Wilbraham Tollemache, the future 6th Earl of Dysart.

She’s painted in a scene from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” She’s the character Miranda at the moment when she sees her future husband Ferdinand for the first time. In fact, since Miranda has grown up on an island, it’s the first time she’s actually seen a young man.

Mrs. Tollemache was 28 years old and a new bride. So it was flattering to be painted as the young lady Miranda, with alabaster skin and rosy cheeks in a gold-trimmed gown.

This portrait was displayed at the Royal Academy in 1774 and it may have inspired works by George Romney and Daniel Gardner. There’s a companion portrait to this one—Lady Louisa Manners—which is of Mrs. Tollemache’s sister-in-law and is also on display in Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough. Guinness purchased both paintings, as well as 69 others, in 1888, a major year for his art collecting.

That’s Caliban, by the way, at Miranda’s feet.

I can’t resist one more, George Romney’s portrait of Emma Hart As “The Spinstress”.

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And from the website:

George Romney is best known for his portraits of Emma Hart. He was smitten by her beauty and over a four-year period, he sketched her hundreds of times.

Even after she left England for Naples, Romney remained obsessed with her, painting her from memory. She was his muse but never his mistress.

She was born Amy Lyon, but she later called herself “Emma Hart.” The daughter of a blacksmith, she worked at what was likely a brothel. At 16, she was illiterate and pregnant.

But that’s when the Hon. Charles Greville, who moved her, her baby and her mother into his villa, took her up. She was his teenaged mistress. And he was the one who commissioned this portrait.

Dutch painters had been painting ladies at spinning wheels. There was often a caged bird included in the scenery, which was an allusion to the woman’s virtue. In this portrait, Emma’s bird may have flown. The only bird present is a hen at her feet.

Susan Jenkins had her own take on these portraits and more, with a beguiling way of talking about art, culture, and history that I can’t capture here but that was thoroughly enchanting.

At 8:00, she released us to see the exhibition on our own, as well as the accompanying exhibition European Masters: The Treasures of Seattle.

This exhibition, focusing on a great collector of the 19th century, also presents the perfect moment to reveal some of the extraordinary collecting of European painting that has been quietly taking place in Seattle over the last 20 years. European Masters: The Treasures of Seattle features 34 paintings, all from local collections, which will share the special exhibition galleries with the 48 paintings from Kenwood House. The paired exhibitions will give visitors the opportunity to observe different approaches to collecting, the history of taste, and how the market has changed since Lord Iveagh began to form his collection in 1887. Most importantly, our visitors will have the chance to see exceptional works of art from right here in Seattle, which, until this moment, has largely overlooked the art of Europe. Featured artists include Vittore Carpaccio, Francisco de Zurbarán, J.A.D. Ingres, Eugène Delacroix, and Frans Hals.

On one wall of the Kenwood House exhibit are photographs of rooms in the house, allowing you to get a sense of how the paintings, which get their own space in the museum setting, are jumbled together within the house. The Rembrandt self-portrait, for instance, which has a wall to itself at SAM, is quietly sitting above furniture and adjacent to other paintings in London, emerging as a hidden surprise.

Simon happened to be standing by the photos when we looked at them, giving us an opportunity to talk with him some more about the house. Later, as we surveyed the paintings from Seattle collections, we found ourselves with Ian and continued through together, then back to the lobby, where someone was handing out copies of the small, paperback exhibition catalogue. Ian urged us to stick around for more wine and food, which we did.

Most people were gone by now. Two guests were chatting with Susan, we talked more with Ian, then we thanked Susan and headed out.

We have now added Kenwood House to our list of must-sees next time we get to London, not that I have any idea when that will be. But whenever it is, this is what we’ll see:

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Categories: Art, Museums