2021 Oscar-Nominated Shorts

For the first year since we began to watch the Oscar shorts, we could not go to our beloved Showroom, because it sadly, irrevocably, no longer exists. Instead, we watched it on TV. And for the first time, we actually watched one of the programs after the awards were given. So a decidedly pandemic-flavored experience with an array of weirdnesses — and sadnesses — baked in. Discounting all of these factors to the extent possible, I still think this was an overall weak batch of nominees, generally lacking in scope, imagination, and/or coherence. The ones I found exceptional — Genius Loci, Opera, and Feeling Through — are the exceptions that prove the rule and lead me to wonder what riches were discarded by the nominating committees. And the fact that these did not win rather speaks to — oh yes, let’s overgeneralize — a failing of the Zeitgeist, a championing of the ham-handed, a myopic embrace of the close and obvious.

Almost all of the live action shorts thrummed with a steady drumbeat (which was literally the soundtrack for a couple of them) of authoritarianism, brutality, prejudice, fear, power imbalances, us versus them, me against the world. The Present depicts a highly sympathetic Palestinian and his young daughter subjected to every imaginable humiliation as they cross and recross Israeli border checkpoints trying to bring home a refrigerator for his wife. White Eye, an Israeli short, involves a stolen bicycle whose owner moves from indignation to retribution, in the process incriminating an Eritrean immigrant, but somehow never transcending pettiness. And the winning short, Two Distant Strangers, murkily and messily cycles through every all-too-sickeningly familiar iteration of white police persecution of unarmed and unsuspecting blacks —  ultimately giving us no hope, no surcease, no way out. The winning animation short, If Anything Happens I Love You, is similarly unrelentingly sad and, for me at least, hollow.

And maybe I am heartless or just tired, but none of these moved me. I am in a state of post-outrage. I am tired of isolation, alienation, agitation, capriciousness, and cruelty. I long for commonality, closure, catharsis.

To be fair, The Burrow tried for these, as did The Letter Room. But in the former, I could not quite grasp what the bunny’s problem was: an insufficiently ambitious blueprint? a desire to be above ground rather than below? fear of intimacy? Whatever it was, it seems to have been resolved by relying on community. Or so my daughters explained to me. As for the latter, which starred Oscar Arias and was, quite frankly, endless, its effort to bring joy to the damned and despised, as the guard charged with monitoring prisoner correspondence ended by writing a letter to a death row inmate purportedly from the prisoner’s daughter, essentially advocated for telling lies to the defeated rather than truth to power, tacitly acknowledging that the system is incapable of reform and small acts of random kindness are the best that can be hoped for.

But the three mentioned above held power and mystery and magnanimity and majesty. And Sarah’s favorite, Yes-People, and all three honorable mention animated shorts were joyous and funny and inspiring and warm. Opera is Hieronymus Bosch crossed with Rube Goldberg. It’s all of life, history, the planet, creation and destruction and everything in between simultaneously on the grand scale and in miniature, meant to be viewed as a continuous-loop installation. Here are two segments of the eight-minute film:

Genius Loci is about — I’m not sure what, I think mental illness, a fire in the brain only soothed and only temporarily by music. The narrator tells us that it is always chaos in her world, but just a question of degree. The artwork conveys this fragmentation fluidly and evocatively, making for a disturbing and disorienting descent into another person’s head: a sacred place to be allowed after all these tales of divisiveness and strife and intolerance.

Feeling Through is another ray of hope, another chance at empathy. The protagonist, a presumably temporarily homeless young black man, spends the wee hours of a night in New York with a man who is deaf and blind, helping him get back uptown after a date, and learning — no, feeling — a lot through their interaction. This film, made in partnership with the Helen Keller Services, is available to be viewed in full on YouTube.

Sarah’s favorite was the animated short Yes-People, which many have dismissed as light and frothy, the daily struggles and routines of a set of Icelandic apartment dwellers; they only speak one word with differing intonations, but use it to cover all their attitudes and observations of their day. She felt it profound; I think she has something there.

The honorable mentions were lovely. To: Gerard was perhaps my favorite, combining magic, mentorship, and the passing of the years most beautifully. The Snail and the Whale should be required viewing to encourage a new generation of environmentalists.

There was no real whimsy or humor this year among the nominees, so for that I end on this also-ran; it was in the larger selection of animated shorts before the cut to five. It is quite delightful and a nice place to stop.

Movie review

Roughly Speaking

1944 Press Photo Mrs Louise Randall Pierson, author with daughter
Lobby card

What an unexpectedly fresh and modern and breezy film this 1945 biopic is! The story of an unquenchable American woman, born in 1890 and living through a series of hard times historically (think World I, the Depression, World War II) and hard knocks personally (early loss of father and family fortune, infantile paralysis of four children, divorce, numerous catastrophic business losses) and emerging unbowed, uncowed, and unrelentingly cheerful, has nice messages for our own troubled times.

And it’s not just the satisfying, feel-good triumph of the little guy (gal) over adversity that resonates. Even on second viewing, I was struck by the surprisingly frank and gutsy quality here — largely due to the inimitable Rosalind Russell, of course, but also to her inspired pairing with Jack Carson. Their quick, affectionate repartee, their shared quirky take on the world, and their mutually held fierce, if naive, ambition to take on the world come what may make them endearing partners and heroes. Through their eyes, and in their voices, the Michael Curtiz (Casablanca)–directed Roughly Speaking steps out of its time, shakes off sentimentality (except at the end, when everybody’s going off to war), and unabashedly celebrates independent thinkers, iconoclasts, goofs, dreamers, and what Oscar Hammerstein extols as cockeyed optimists — and lets a woman lead the pack.

And lets a woman write it: the screenplay is by Louise Randall Pierson (pictured above), based on her own memoir. I suspect that memoir was quite the deal in its day. Published in 1943, by July it was already bought by Warner Brothers as a vehicle for Bette Davis — who, being Bette Davis, as well as a shrewd judge of her own material, promptly turned it down. Contemporary reviews of the book are hard to find, but there is this delicious tidbit from July 24, 1943:

On the way home I finished Louise Randall Pierson’s “Roughly Speaking.” There were moments when I felt weary, so much abounding energy went into her life that when her first husband moved to the Yale Club, I almost echoed his sigh of relief. I am sure that a month later, however, he missed his stimulating wife and the undisciplined children whom life will discipline, whether their parents did it or not. They probably will turn out well and do a good job in the world just because of the qualities which must have made them trying to their neighbors. 

One ends the book with a warm feeling for the courage of the author. Her vitality must be extraordinary, but so is her appreciation of the America we love.

The author of this rather bemused and mildly disapproving account was none other than First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in her “My Day” column.

What a woman Pierson must have been! As portrayed by Russell, she is fiercely independent, utterly self-reliant, flexible, competent, adaptable, and smart. And the New York Times review of her book concurrent with the 1945 movie release portrays a woman buffeted by Fate and bouncing back resiliently, repeatedly, and cheerily. In life, she went on to write the screenplay for Mildred Pierce, dying in 1969. Her youngest son, Frank, who died in 2012, went on to become both a director and writer himself, winning the Academy Award for his screenplay of Dog Day Afternoon, penning the immortal “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate” from Cool Hand Luke, taking on Streisand and Peters at their arrogant peak in directing A Star Is Born, and serving as president of both the WGA and the Academy (see here for more from the AFI Magazine).

The Internet sadly yields more about Frank than Louise. But the search turns my mind to the cozy autobiographies of yesteryear that I read as a kid: Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough’s Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, Ruth McKenney’s My Sister Eileen, Kathryn Forbes’s Mama’s Bank Account (also published in 1943 and more familiar as the movie and play I Remember Mama), and the granddaddy outlier in terms of dates and gender Clarence Day’s Life With Father. It is perhaps not fair of me to categorize Pierson’s work with these, as I have not read it, but at this remove, it seems to share with these contemporaries a vibrant and humorous woman at (or with Day, near) its center, a plucky and singularly American can-do tone, and — with the exception of Day — an experienced female author (Kimbrough, McKenney, and Pierson were all reporters or journalists, and Forbes wrote radio scripts).

I tried to do a search for humorous contemporary memoirs, to see if the genre is still with us, but that tone of making light and lemonade seems to be gone. (This is not based on exhaustive research or study, just a casual, and maybe forced, observation.) And distressingly, except for autobiographical works by successful comedians like Tina Fey, Mindy Kahling, Amy Poehler, and Issa Rae, the ground seems to have been ceded to men. Searching for “authors like david sedaris” (the only contemporary autobiographical humorist I could think of offhand) brought up references to other men and dead women. Maybe it was because the menfolk were off to war, and the writing space opened up — even as the acting space did — for vital, hardy, talented women.

But Pierson’s story, and the others I’ve cited above, highlights more than a woeful feminist backsliding. It also underscores our abandonment of the all-American little guy — epitomized, to me at least, by midcentury Gene Kelly on his lamppost, defying nature, gravity, and the world. 

It’s that quintessential American optimism, innocence, ingenuousness, happiness, security, and self-confidence that I’m talking about. The 1945 New York Times article quotes Harold Pierson, Louise’s husband, saying this about the call to arms of World War II, to which he and Louise sent three sons: “Believe me, any country where we’ve been free to fail in all the different ways we’ve failed deserves to be saved.” An attitude now almost quaint. As Amanda Wingfield mourns in The Glass Menagerie, “All vestige of gracious living! Gone completely! I wasn’t prepared for what the future brought me.”


Book review

Think of England: Short Stories (Frederic Raphael)

still life with skull
Pieter Claesz, Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill, 1628.

I very much like Frederic Raphael’s work, based, as I’ve noted in other posts (here and here and here), on first encountering him through my much-beloved The Glittering Prizes. Now eighty-nine, and with his most recent publications in 2015 and his most recent screenplay  in 2003 (his films are probably more familiar to most than his books, and include Eyes Wide Shut, Two for the Road, Far from the Madding Crowd, Darling, and, I just discovered, the Bogdanovich-directed Daisy Miller, which I have accordingly moved to the top of my Netflix queue), he is at the end of his career and maybe a bit forgotten — though, frankly, I have never very much paid attention to or cared about the au courant nature of any author I enjoy. (Another discovery in researching this post; there appear to be over a hundred short YouTube videos with Frederic Raphael uploaded in 2017 in the Web of Stories – Life Stories of Remarkable People series; playlist is here; this seems very intriguing indeed!)

And I do enjoy Raphael’s work, though I am hard pressed to explain precisely why. Mostly, there is an aloof elegance and discipline to his writing and an unemotional, cerebral quality that I find very appealing. And oddly escapist. Because unlike, say Paul Auster, beneath the detachment, there is no angst or despair. There are no big issues roiling under the surface, or at least none that I’ve detected. There are instead axes to grind and pettinesses, prejudices, and pretensions to expose — all of which bring to mind Sayre’s Law about the intensity of feeling being inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake. Even when I don’t know the targets Raphael is skewering, I do relish the language and gusto.

There are seventeen stories in Think of England, which has an original copyright date of 1964 and an original American publication of 1988. The book jacket describes the collection as “stylish,” which I guess will do. These are not substantive stories; they are reminiscences, mostly character sketches or wry, ironic, sleek observations. Some are more successful, to my mind, than others, and many of them rather run together with common themes, settings, and characters.

The absolute best is the last, “The People in Euclid,” which is chilling and smart and heartless and heartwrenching; perhaps not coincidentally, it features people whose stories I knew already from The Glittering Prizes. But more than that, it features a terrific fluid narrative method, which has the disjointed sleepwalker quality of a nightmare.

Several — “A Kiss on the Cheek,” “A Long Story Short,” “Seniority,” “To Be a Pilgrim,” “Union Jack Development,” and “Bad Books” — end with an ironic, often cruel punchline reminiscent of de Maupassant or a chillier O. Henry. And a couple seem to be more or less straightforward, and almost affectionate, memories; I would put “The Old Pro” in that category, which is the closest to what could be called a nice story, one where you go “awww.” Raphael rarely goes for “awww.”

Finally, there is “The Day Franco Came,” which is the longest in the collection and stands out like a sore thumb to me. It is the only one set in a different mind, time, and place — although its location, Torreroja, Spain, is the setting for several subsequent stories populated by Raphael and his friends and colleagues. I found the story decidedly weird, and I could not really parse it. I think Raphael was trying quite consciously to write outside his comfort zone, but I did not find the effort successful.

All the stories are gilded with Raphael’s mordant observational style. And his delicious parallel construction. Some examples:

[He] was cleverer than I knew, but not cleverer than Barbara knew, which was cleverer of her than of me.

He liked working with, and quarelling with, people he had worked with, and quarelled with, before.

He was a wine-drinker who quaffed ale to put others at their ease. In short, he lived at the busy intersection of his contradictions.

It made him wonder for whom she was taking him, and whether that could possibly be who he was.

And then there are just very funny lines, worthy of Patrick Dennis:

…no limpet ever had more independence than Annie.

The festive impact was muted by the impression that all these decorations had been inherited from Miss Havisham.

The pudding was pieces of tinned pineapple in what appeared to be diluted toothpaste.

‘What more can we be to each other than we are now?’

‘Unfaithful?’ he said.

But the best observations are those about the craft of writing, notably this extract from “Looking Back,” where Raphael describes his early exposure as a young adolescent to the plays of Noel Coward:

Novels, I noticed, contained many more pages than plays and their authors were, on the whole, required to fill the space from margin to margin. A dramatist could have someone say ‘Open this door’ or ‘Ecstatic’ and move immediately to the next double-spaced line. I had a long way to go before I could hope to appear between hard covers, but I could already recognise a short cut when I saw one.

Most telling of all, though, is the following line, which sums up so much of Raphael’s oeuvre.

The writer is a kind of spiritual burglar who leaves with swag that cannot be marked on any routine inventory.

That’s any author, but particularly this author, to a T. Raphael writes what he takes from the homes, guestrooms, villas, and offices he frequents. It is a circumscribed world of literati and enfants terribles and selfish, self-centered charmers of varying degrees. But interesting and entertaining to visit now and again.

Art review, Book review, Movie review, Theatre review, TV review

2020 Round-up

Books (me)

  • The Man Who Wasn’t There, Anil Ananthaswamy
  • The Mysterious Mr. Quinn, Agatha Christie
  • An American Story, Christopher Priest
  • Disease & History, Frederick F. Cartwright and Michael Biddis
  • The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood
  • Curious Behavior, Robert R. Provine
  • Those Were the Days: Why All in the Family Still Matters, Jim Cullen
  • Motherless Brooklyn, Jonathan Lethem
  • Wilson, A. Scott Berg
  • The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing, Merve Emre
  • Babylon Berlin, Volker Kutscher
  • Before the Deluge: A Portrait of Berlin in the 1920s, Otto Friedrich

A lot of my book choices this year were made because or in spite of the pandemic: some, like Disease & History and Wilson, were conscious efforts to try to understand and place it and our times in a context. A few were easy escapism; one was a deliciously long read. A couple of the nonfiction were quite disappointing: Curious Behavior is a specialist’s end-of-life wrap-up of pet research topics rather than an engaging narrative. The Personality Brokers is, to my mind, rather mean-spirited and formless, ultimately neither fish nor fowl nor good brown bread and making me wonder why it was written or published. Those Were the Days, in contrast, is a very nice piece of pop culture scholarship: clean and clear and cogent and engaging; my brother, for whom I bought this book, has blogged about it. My favorite book all year, hands down, was Before the Deluge. I also greatly admired, but did not love, Berg’s Wilson. Berg is a painstaking researcher, but the book exposes the huge problem in crafting a responsible biography, particularly of someone long dead: some stuff — important or trivial — simply can’t be explained or contextualized; no records or witnesses remain. Berg steadfastly refuses to speculate. Which means there are odd anecdotes, people, incidents that sort of mysteriously trail off. Berg also refuses to draw conclusions about his subject. While I appreciate his leaving it to me to make judgments about Wilson, I would have liked some help from Berg in understanding how, for instance, such a devoted husband could so quickly court and marry a second wife.

Books (Steve)

  • Naked Lunch, William Burroughs
  • All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy
  • Sentinels, Bill Pronzini
  • Death on the Nile, Agatha Christie
  • The Last Outlaw, Thom Hatch
  • Miracle at St. Anna, James McBride
  • Invisible, Paul Auster
  • The White Album, Joan Didion
  • Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise, Oscar Hijuelos
  • Motherless Brooklyn, Jonathan Lethem
  • The Great American Novel, Philip Roth
  • Babylon Berlin, Volker Kutscher
  • Rum Punch, Elmore Leonard
  • Lives of the Poets, E.L. Doctorow
  • The Girl with the Silver Eyes, Dashiell Hammett

Steve’s top picks were Motherless Brooklyn, The Last Outlaw, Miracle at St. Anna, and All the Pretty Horses. The McBride must have made a particular impression, as he has collected a couple others to read this year. He was impressed by Hijuelos’s creative nonfiction, an imagining of the real-life friendship between Mark Twain and explorer/journalist Henry Stanley (of Stanley and Livingstone fame). His favorite book of the year was The Great American Novel.

Dance, Theater, Performance, Lectures, and Readings

  • Coal Country (Public)
  • Che Malambo (Joyce)
  • What Do We Need to Talk About? (Public)
  • Fab 4 Master Class, “The Road to Love Me Do”
  • Puppet Slam (La Mama)
  • Various online readings of Sarah’s short plays
  • The Princess Bride (Wisconsin Democrats)
  • A Christmas Carol (No.11)

The first two were in theaters; the rest were virtual; all were savored. Steve particularly enjoyed Coal Country, noting that that was maybe because it was the last theater we saw live. However, he really did enjoy the music and the story and Steve Earle, so I don’t think it was its finality, so much as its actuality, that appealed. I also liked it; it was extremely moving and a plea for seeing commonality and humanity. The dance performance at the Joyce was slight, but having attempted to watch dance on line since, even slight live is so much more alive than via Zoom. This year’s Puppet Slam was an abbreviated shadow of previous years’ efforts, but it had heart and soul and good intent. Similarly, daughter Julie’s No.11’s traditional holiday outing, always a heartfelt delight, was this year split into a patchwork of homemade contributions, brimming over with sincerity and cheer. As live performance migrated to projections beamed from living rooms to living rooms around the world, coziness and ingenuousness have replaced grandeur and immediacy. The tradeoff is not completely commensurate, but it has had a refreshingly equalizing effect, making theater accessible to everyone, if not remunerative for practitioners. Further, our family has gathered on Skype from three households to act out plays written by “the littlest Congress,” resident playwright and pandemic housemate Sarah. Maybe not the same thrill as house seats to Company, but satisfying in a wholly different way.

Movies  (in theaters* and first-run on TV)

  • Pain and Glory*
  • 1917*
  • 2020 Oscar-Nominated Live Action Shorts*
  • 2020 Oscar Nominated Short Films: Animation*
  • Little Women*
  • Horse Girl
  • Motherless Brooklyn
  • Blow the Man Down
  • Photograph
  • The Kitchen
  • In the Tall Grass
  • Lost Girls
  • Shirley
  • Us
  • Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn
  • The Lovebirds
  • Invisible Life
  • Bad Education
  • I’m Thinking of Ending Things
  • Strange But True
  • The Wolf House
  • The Good Liar
  • Wasp Network
  • The Trial of the Chicago 7
  • Sometimes Always Never
  • The Kindness of Strangers
  • An Affair to Die For
  • Let Them All Talk
  • Dick Johnson Is Dead

I so miss going to the movies, sitting in the dark with invisible strangers and smelling (presumably) fresh popcorn. It seems churlish to say this given the plethora of movies we have access to via streaming and subscription, and even though I can’t keep all our access options straight, I do spend more time than I should on Letterboxd, Netflix, Amazon, HBO Max, TCM, Showtime, and Decider queuing up possibilities for movies new and old.

But this year was…strange.

We watched lots and lots and lots of movies and TV shows of all shapes and descriptions, with a little bit more discipline since Sarah has been in residence; because she keeps regular hours, long movies are for weekends and hour-long shows are on weekdays. Nonetheless, very little of it has had lasting impact or made much of an impression. It is possible that this is because it has been on the TV screen rather than experienced with movie theater sound and projection qualities. More likely, though, it’s because of the pandemic and the politics of 2020: a part of our brain was not really present, not really fully engaged, not capable of wrapping around the intricacies of unfamiliar points of view. So a lot of the new stuff — Trial of the Chicago 7, Dick Johnson Is Dead, The Wolf House, Let Them All Talk — however ballyhooed, didn’t quite grab us, although we could appreciate it; a lot of it we didn’t even bother to engage with, or haven’t yet.

Instead, our movie pleasure derived from revisiting the familiar: the outright nostalgic and nonthreatening, some of which we got to introduce to Sarah for the first time — Hitchcock, Hepburn, Hopscotch, Harvey, Hannah and Her Sisters, Moonstruck, Dummy, Peter’s Friends, Pieces of April, The Fisher King, Logan Lucky, Galaxy Quest, Lost in Paris, Angel Heart, Sweet Smell of Success, Arthur. Documentaries on Orson Welles, Robert Altman, Tom Waits, Brian De Palma, Hal Ashby, Hunter S. Thompson, The Who, and many others. Some horror movies, most of which were quite silly and forgettable, but the best of which was the aforementioned almost lyrical The Wolf House.

We watched old or older movies we’d somehow missed, some challenging, some sentimental, some potboilers; a lot of noirs and thrillers: Zorba the Greek, Topkapi, Mr. Love, Meek’s Cutoff, RififiElevator to the Gallows, Stranger on the Third Floor, The V.I.P.s, A Single Man, Inception, Moonlight. We indulged in quick infatuations with Roman Polanski (The Tenant, Cul-de-Sac, Knife in the Water), Peter Bogdanovitch and Orson Welles (The Great Buster: A Celebration, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, The Tell-Tale Heart) — spurred in very large part by the wonderful podcast series, The Plot Thickens — Powell and Pressburger (A Matter of Life and Death, The Red Shoes, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, 49th Parallel), and Taika Waititi (Boy, Jojo Rabbit, Hunt for the Wilderpeople).

The standouts of all these movies new and old tend more toward the sentimental than the cerebral. Steve’s favorites among the new were 1917, Motherless Brooklyn, and I’m Thinking of Ending Things; he (and I) also really enjoyed revisiting Jojo Rabbit and stumbling on the rest of Waititi’s quirky, offbeat, but so sweet, work. For me, there were a few disappointments: notably Shirley (the pairing of the equally off-kilter and brilliant Elisabeth Moss and Shirley Jackson thwarted by a script trading in fantasy and misplaced feminism), The Story of Roy Cohn (a half-hearted effort), and The Good Liar (simply ridiculous). But there were also a few unexpected gems: Sometimes Always Never and I Capture the Castle, both eccentric and compassionate family tales featuring the always eccentric Bill Nighy; The Lovebirds, a charming screwball comedy; Transit, a deeply unsettling and fascinating German thriller; 78/52, a comprehensive look at Psycho’s shower scene. The new movie highlight was Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things, which I intend to rewatch. It is very much, in its solipsistic stuck circles, a movie for our time. The rewatch highlight is The Fisher King; I can never tire of that Grand Central waltz.

We deeply mourn the passing of our local arthouse, the much-loved Showroom, a victim of the Covid economy.


As with movies, we turned to a lot of old familiar faces on TV to escape 2020: Sgt. Bilko, Car 54, Laugh-In, Larry Sanders. We introduced Sarah to three series, each fabulous in its own way: Upstairs, Downstairs, Russian Doll, and Babylon Berlin. Steve and Sarah tore through Schitt’s Creek, which they found to be sheer delight and I will have to follow them there this year. We all watched The Good Place, which turned out to have its heart in the right place and was quite satisfying and sweet.

We didn’t go in for a lot of the pandemic fare we kept hearing about (Tiger King, The Crown), but we did watch and greatly enjoyed The Queen’s Gambit. In its latter episodes, we watched The Undoing primarily for Nicole Kidman’s coats, and deplored the too-easy ending. We watched Watchmen, The Plot Against America, and My Brilliant Friend religiously and devotedly, although the latter two were not quite as satisfying as I would have liked, and the first trades in wildly crazy sci fi tropes. Nonetheless, they are expensively and beautifully realized, well acted, and largely deliciously escapist — just what was needed.

Museums and Field Trips

We made a fleeting trip to the Mütter Museum in October to see its “Spit Spreads Death: The Influenza Pandemic of 1918–19 in Philadelphia” special exhibit which Sarah and I had very much wanted to see all year and which we all agreed would be safe to attend, since, well, the likelihood of catching an infectious disease there would be too ironic to be possible. I grant you, not a scientific calculation, but the exhibit and the Mütter were smart and salient and safe.

Food and Restaurants

This was the year of no new restaurants and very few meals out, except for maybe a half dozen very cautious outdoor dining experiences. It was, though, as Julie pointed out, very much the year of the picnic. We had many picnics well into November and they were all greatly savored: here at Sunset Lake in Asbury, watching the heron and the turtles; at Spring Lake, walking on all the bridges, crossing and recrossing the lake; in Red Bank overlooking the Navesink; and at Sandy Hook, sitting on the rocks and watching the bay. We learned early on that carryout — particularly of Italian food — is rarely as good as in-restaurant meals.

A further limitation was my April gallbladder attack, which after a half day in the hospital, convinced me of the need to make changes in order to leave this world with the same complement of internal organs with which I entered it. After implementing a very low-fat diet, I was symptom free for eight months. Another flareup after a highly stressful deadline made for a further realization: my gallbladder literally feels my pain. So perhaps it is not so much fats as stress; who knows? In any case, Steve turned deprivation into a virtue, and our meals have been sumptuous and delicious and fresh and mindful. No ersatz ingredients or substitutions, no pretending no-fat yogurt is heavy cream. Instead, we made full use of our easy access to fresh produce and fish; measured and weighed; cut back or out. Highlights of Steve’s culinary achievements this year were tomato soup, a wonderful restaurant-quality roasted potatoes recipe, perfecting his buttermilk shrimp and corn chowder, and innovating with an herb-coated pork tenderloin. He also came up with a highly satisfying cornmeal-coated baked “fried” shrimp and scallop recipe. I made a lot of roasted peppers this year, which Sarah in particular loves, and which take me an inordinately long time to prepare. The upside to that has been having the leisure to listen to long, smart podcasts.

Book review

Before the Deluge: A Portrait of Berlin in the 1920s (Otto Friedrich)

Metropolis Triptych, 1927, by Otto Dix

“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

“Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.”

I have been rather immersed in Weimar Germany for much of the pandemic and fascinated by it most of my life: enjoying and exploring Expressionist art and film, The Threepenny Opera and Kurt Weill, Christopher Isherwood and I Am a Camera and its multiple descendants, and — most recently — the fabulous Babylon Berlin series on Netflix, which seems to capture and distill all the decadence, intrigue, frenzy, creativity, desperation, and open-mindedness that characterize the era.

And I have read a variety of cultural, sociological, and historical books and memoirs about the period over the years by Peter Gay, Christopher Isherwood, and Fritz Stern, among others. (I confess to having been daunted by Jean-Michel Palmier’s Weimar in Exile, hailed by Le Monde as “a monumental work,” abandoning ship at page 31.) I have also read biographies of people who lived through or influenced the period, most recently A. Scott Berg’s Wilson: it can be argued — and has — that Woodrow Wilson’s ultimate failure at Versailles to secure more lenient reparation terms for Germany is a primary cause of World War II. (As an illustration of the simultaneous attraction to and futility of finger pointing, I am drawn to this observation recorded in the present book. Discussing Heinrich Brüning, one of the last Weimar chancellors, in exile in the 1970s in New Hampshire working on his memoirs, a colleague noted: “He has an absolutely passionate desire to convince people that he wasn’t responsible for the the coming of Hitler… Which is a little absurd, because partly, of course, the coming of Hitler was a kind of tidal wave that nobody could have stopped. But partly, he was responsible.”)

But none of the books I’ve mentioned regarding Weimar — and none that I can recall on other historical periods — comes close to the dazzling encapsulation and evocation of this complex era Otto Friedrich achieves in Before the Deluge. Published originally in 1972 and revised in 1995 just before his too-early death, this elegant exploration combines scholarship (he consulted over three hundred books) and interviews — and in the early seventies, a lot of eyewitnesses were still around, and the trenchant observations and rueful critiques they provide here are a testament to the long-time journalist’s manner and skill. Some samples:

The really important thing during any crisis is whether the streetcars are running. If the streetcars keep running, then life is bearable. —A Berliner on the 1918 revolution

I loved Berlin… the clash of values, between the old and the new. Everything became possible. Everything became Experience, with a capital E—and a capital X. —Yehudi Menuhin

Jazz blared. I remember two popular songs: “Yes, We Have No Bananas” and “Tomorrow’s the End of the World.” However, the end of the world was postponed from one day to the next. —Ilya Ehrenburg

One of the most striking things about the whole Weimar period…is the gulf between the small minority of intellectuals and the general mood of the country. —Professor Richard Lowenthal

The book’s seventeen chapters, aside from its first scene-setting prologue chapter, each depict a year in Berlin under the Weimar Republic from 1918 to 1933. Throughout, Friedrich presents clean, concise summations of big events and big ideas, never losing sight of how they affected real people:

By the middle of 1923, the whole of Germany had become delirious. Whoever had a job got paid every day, usually at noon, and then ran to the nearest store, with a sack full of banknotes, to buy anything he could get, at any price…

The fundamental quality of the disaster was a complete loss of faith in the functioning of society… If all money becomes worthless, then so does all government, and all society, and all standards.

He backs up that conclusion with an observation from a German journalist:

Even the maids—they never spent a penny of their wages. They saved and saved so that they could get married. When the money became worthless, it destroyed the whole system for getting married, and so it destroyed the whole idea of remaining chaste until marriage.

A few of the chapters relate straight chronology: the actions, reactions, intrigues, and personalities that moved Berlin and the republic in that year. The remaining majority of the chapters have a particular focal point — Berlin’s Russian colony, the concert musicians, the scientists, the theater, movies, cabarets, crime. From these various vantage points, Friedrich introduces us to a sprawling and remarkable cast of characters: the politicians, military leaders, and bureaucrats of the time to be sure; but so many more in featured roles and walk-ons — and presented with the fluidity and control of E.L. Doctorow in Ragtime —  the rather magnificent Count Harry Kessler (see here for more about the man The Irish Times called “the original hipster”), Rosa Luxemburg, John Maynard Keynes, Kathe Kollwitz, Vladimir Nabokov, Albert Einstein, Christopher Isherwood, Walter Slezak, the profiteer industrialist Hugo Stinnes, Josephine Baker, Walter Gropius, the concert pianist Rudolf Serkin (whose serendipitous career twists began with a job not taken in a city never visited in order to pursue training never granted by a master who instead advised the teen to just go to lots of concerts, and whose subsequent portfolio included accompanying Einstein, who played violin “without any vibrato, so it always went skreek-skreek-skreek”), Josef von Sternberg, Marlene Dietrich, Zeppelin manufacturer Hugo Eckener (of whose creation Friedrich notes “there was something symptomatic about the heedless optimism with which the Germans of 1929 set off around the world in a giant gas bag filled with highly inflammable hydrogen”).

And of course there is Hitler himself, who, as described by Friedrich, sounds eerily similar to a present-day potentate:

Above all, he was essentially boring, not only in that he had no ideas worth hearing but in that his whole concept of the good life consisted of sitting around the lunch table, eating sweet pastries and conducting monologues on his war experiences or the loyalty of dogs. As a political leader, he was not only ignorant and lazy but strangely indecisive… Perhaps there was something in the eyes that we cannot see in photographs, something in the voice that we do not hear in the old recordings, something that persuaded people to regard him as a hero.

The author’s approach to the subject matter allows him to clearly illustrate how the interactions among the characters influenced outcomes: for instance, the doctrinal antisemitism imported with the Russian emigre Fyodor Vinberg, who “brought to Germany the first copies of a peculiar Russian work called The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” mixed with and built on a German preexisting “conventional hostility” toward the Jews. He also tracks the missed opportunities that likewise influenced outcomes. A former official with the Economics Ministry explains the disastrous policies underlying the currency inflation of the early twenties:

You must understand that the German universities had cut themselves off from classical economic thinking fifty years earlier… I tell you, in all of Germany, there were only three teachers who really understood economics, and two of them were not even full members of their faculties.

Through the shifts in focus, Friedrich smartly and concisely demonstrates his central theme: that even though the Weimar Republic was doomed from the start, the grand experiment and concomitant societal upheaval powered immense creativity as people and ideas came together:

The story of Berlin in the 1920s is not a prophecy…it is simply a great drama and a great tragedy. As in most tragedies, the forces of evil triumph… and yet even after all the violence and destruction, it is the forces of good that live on. Who was really more important, and who will be longer remembered, Einstein or Goebbels?

Panorama (Down with Liebknecht), 1919, by George Grosz





To this end, he details the cultural and scientific innovations and innovators of the period, never failing to weigh in with smart insights, such as his observation that the brilliant architects emerging from the Bauhaus movement “shared one of the peculiar problems of architecture—the fact that architects need a wasteland to work in” in order to leave their mark on a city. And Friedrich succinctly delineates the roiling conflict in modern physics between Einstein and his search for the overarching “laws of God’s creation” and the “young physicists,” led by Heisenberg, who maintain that “all facts are purely momentary perceptions of possibilities.” His descriptions of the mutual bafflement of the two camps make the science approachable and the characters tragically endearing. He also reminds us in this chapter that the war on science is not new, as he recounts the efforts of a right-wing group against the “Einstein hoax.”

There is a moment in the musical Cabaret when the extent to which Nazism has permeated the daily life of Berlin becomes chillingly apparent. This is during a musical interlude, a kickline at the cabaret; it happens at around 2:30 in this video.

I bring this up because this is precisely the effect Friedrich achieves in Before the Deluge. We all know where this is going to end up, yet we linger idyllically at summer picnics, we watch the glamorous Dietrich coming into her own, we watch the machinations of the military and the president and the Communists and the Social Democrats. And we slowly, ever so slowly, out of the corner of our eye, become aware of the actions of Hitler and his ragtag Nazis. They are a blip in the narrative in the early chapters, a merest mention — just as they must have seemed at the time. Until by the last chapters, the Nazi party is front and center in the narrative, overwhelming the last bastions of rationality. After Hitler is installed as chancellor, Friedrich quickly empties his stage, noting: “And so the exodus began.” 

You can draw parallels between any two periods of history and find commonalities. Of course: the common denominator is us, people, flawed humans flawless in our blind obtuseness. And you can detect the seeds of destruction — or more optimistically — the progenitors of progress in any past event. We tell stories, we look for explanations, we see what we want to see, we cherry pick, we bend truth to our own ends.

Nonetheless and notwithstanding, the analogies between Weimar Germany and the present day are legion and profound. (Only today, as I post this, the New York Times has run a truly ominous story of a thirty-one-year-old German officer with far-right leanings who posed for sixteen months as a Syrian refugee with the apparent ultimate aim of bringing down  contemporary German democracy, perceiving immigration as a threat to German nationalism.) Such analogies are, in light of the maxims beginning this post, to be noted, dissected, and taken to heart.


TV review

Upstairs, Downstairs (1971–75)

The Edwardian era Bellamy household.

A most pleasant preoccupation during these decidedly unpleasant times has been revisiting the classic British TV series Upstairs, Downstairs. Steve and I, latecomers to the show, first watched the sixty-eight episodes about five or more years ago, and rewatched them over the past several months to introduce them to our pandemic housemate Sarah. She was as captivated by the Bellamy household as we continued to be.

The attraction lies first and largely in the rich, multifaceted characters who comprise the two domains of 165 Eaton Place: the masters and the servants. But the fascination comes from watching their reactions and responses as the world — slowly at first, then at steadily increasing speed — roils and shifts around them, tumbling them headlong into a future none of them could foresee, anymore than can any of us now, I suppose. But watching them, we know what they do not: that it’s all going to end, sometimes quite badly. On reflection, this is the same appeal as with Mad Men: clearly delineated characters moving with or against the currents of their time. But where Don, Peggy, Joan, and the rest dealt with the upheavals of a single, albeit tumultuous, decade, the 1960s, the Bellamys move through almost thirty years from the Edwardian period to the beginning of the Great Slump.

The pre–World War I household configuration.

The social and technological changes realized during the 1903–30 time frame are immense, and the discrete historical events that punctuate the period are huge. The sinking of the Titanic, World War I, the Spanish flu epidemic, the stock market crash, and more, visit the inhabitants of Eaton Place — and hit hard. To say nothing of the human-scale milestones that test and mark the characters: like any good soap opera, and some well-lived lives, Upstairs, Downstairs is replete with weddings, deaths, divorces, extramarital affairs, unrequited love, suicides, kidnappings, drunkenness, disability, madness, extortion, and scandal. Tellingly, there are relatively few births on the show: only two, by my count, and only one of those children survives. I think this is because the story of the Bellamys is one of gradual extinction. Like E.M. Forster’s Howards End and George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House, Upstairs, Downstairs tells of a time and a class on its way out, as the assumptions and circumstances that underlie the British empire rot away.

Class is an obvious and uppermost theme throughout the series. There are the nobility and the gentry who live upstairs — prominently Lady Marjorie, born to a title, and Lord Richard Bellamy, later bestowed his title, their children James and Elizabeth, and a set of spouses and extended family — and there are the below-stairs servants. These, as James’s wife Hazel — who, like Richard, comes from the middle class, and thus strictly speaking belongs neither upstairs nor downstairs — observes, make up a second family living in the Bellamy home, with “father” Hudson, the butler; “mother” Mrs. Bridges, the cook; and an assortment of “children” consisting of the flower-named maids (Rose, Daisy, Violet, Lily), the chauffeurs, footmen, and scullery girls. But interestingly and perhaps unusually, they don’t really live downstairs, only work there. Their rooms, like the Bellamys’, are mostly on upper floors, meaning that the entire household uses a single common staircase. And a good many significant scenes of transition are played out on those stairs, peering over banisters, hunched up in tears, or seated expectantly or unexpectedly.

The Bellamy household of the early 1920s.

A thought about the housing arrangements. It occurred to me that James, particularly when back home after his time at the front during the war, and both Elizabeth and Bellamy ward Georgina, in between impetuous and sometimes scandalous sallies into the broader world, spend almost entire episodes in their own rooms or in the morning room — smoking, sulking, and periodically summoning or dismissing the staff. But below stairs, except for their rarely seen bedrooms, most of which are shared, and Hudson’s pantry, a private and sacrosanct retreat, all is communal space. The staff cozily eat, confer, connect, clash, and recreate together, all while drinking endless cups of cocoa and tea: in stark contrast to the lonely, solitary lives led above stairs. I wonder what were the impacts of the myriad opportunities available to the lower classes to thus exchange thoughts — and all-too-frequent misinterpretations — versus the long stretches available to the upper classes for introspection and solipsism.

Upstairs, Downstairs differs from its predecessor prestige period piece The Forsyte Saga of 1967 in that the latter is based on a book by John Galsworthy and its characters stay, well, more or less in character. In contrast, over a dozen credited writers created Upstairs, Downstairs. I do not know to what extent character and season arcs were deliberately developed, and to what extent the writers had free rein to go where and how they wanted. But it is apparent that writer conceptions of the various characters differed widely and wildly. So, Mr. Hudson may be petty and peevish in one episode, and wise and preternaturally cool and collected in another. Rose too rockets from wide-eyed innocence to tart bitterness. Richard is an almost insufferable and clueless stuffed shirt in some episodes and a sly, subtle rake in others. The actors did their best to elide these contradictions. And in some episodes, this sense of character as filtered through an individual writer’s perspective, yields real riches. Noted novelist Fay Weldon’s “Your Obedient Servant” episode sets up a wonderful parallel between Richard and Hudson as they confront their respective brothers — and each other, in unfamiliar surroundings — resulting in a keen appreciation of character and a warm shared humanity; such insights might not have been possible with a single guiding narrative voice.

Regardless of these episode-to-episode character inconsistencies, what offered me the most food for thought was seeing how stuck so many of the characters were. Stuck in preconceptions, societal expectations, notions of fitness and rightness. How curtailed their freedom was by their times and class, regardless of whether they lived upstairs or down. James, whose tragic life is the central arc of the series, is irrevocably hemmed in: by his class, by his connections, by available opportunities, by what he’s seen and done in the war, by what he wants and needs — which he really doesn’t know and couldn’t express even if he did, because of yet another limitation in his character: James is ultimately not very perceptive. He is a clumsy, and spoiled, creature of impulse, of a genetic piece with his sister Elizabeth. He is not a bad man, not at all; just one who has no “driving wheel,” as Steve and David Bromberg would put it. To some extent, his inability to find meaning, his frustrated, restive nature, is a product of the Great War. But really, the seeds were sown years before by an indulgent set of parents and a class system that encouraged idleness and precluded so many avenues to relevancy.

At the other end of the spectrum of societal expectation is Mrs. Bridges. Where James floats purposelessly, not knowing where or how to land, Mrs. Bridges knows exactly who and what she is, was, and always will be.  She never changes her hairstyle or her hemline, but stays firmly rooted in Edwardian era domestic service attitudes and fashion (see black and white photo of a 1907 Mrs. Bridges doppelganger). Even more than Mr. Hudson, who senses and fights against evolving attitudes toward domestic service, she seems impervious to changing times and mores. But Kate Bridges has an advantage even over Hudson, which I found quite revelatory and intriguing, and which perhaps could explain her confident certitude. As the cook, provider of food and sustenance, Mrs. Bridges has certain powers and privileges unavailable to the others below stairs. When sufficiently vexed with uncertainty or capriciousness emanating from the master, mistress, or other family members, she can go upstairs and press her case. And she does — not often, but only when pushed — and she is generally pacified or at least mollified. Mrs. Bridges is, after all, not just a cook, but a very good fancy cook. She also has a special relationship with the children of the household. I was struck when Victoria, Richard’s second wife, brings her children downstairs after their first visit to Eaton Place, so they can thank Cook personally for their tea. Certainly, no one ever thanks Rose or Daisy or Edward the footman for their ceaseless, invisible labor.

Most of the staff, like Mrs. Bridges, like Hudson, know their place. But as the years go by, the newer and younger staff evince a bit of the same rebelliousness as Sarah (pictured at left), who enters service in the very first episode and leaves no member of the Bellamy household unscathed in her relentless quest for a better, freer, less constrained life. After the war, this spirit is much more pronounced among the junior staff, several of whom leave service altogether — much to Hudson’s dismay and disappointment. But these servants, beginning with Sarah, are actually able to do what James cannot: break free of societally imposed constraints. They can pursue what earlier generations of domestic servants could not: upward mobility.

Beyond the social issues, the key to the show’s enduring interest and appeal is the decency, the humanity, of its main characters. We come to care deeply for Hudson and Hazel, for Rose and Richard, for Marjorie and James, for Edward and Daisy, for Mrs. Bridges and Ruby — particularly in season 4, when they are buffeted, bewildered, and beat down by the war. Almost every character gets a chance, sometimes several, to reveal their grace and grit, their compassion, their honor. It was a joy being in their presence for all these months; I shall miss them.

It appears that all the episodes can be streamed on YouTube; I am not sure of the copyright considerations entailed. They are also available on Britbox. And a lovely resource for all things Upstairs, Downstairs is maintained online by Steve Phillips: click here.

Book review

An American Story (Christopher Priest)

Pakistan International Airline print ad 1979

When late-night Internet surfing led me to the fact that Christopher Priest, author of the absolutely-can’t-put-this-down The Prestige, had published a book in 2019 about 9/11, I promptly bought and then promptly read it. In the intervening decades, I had tried to get through other Priest efforts, but maybe only one, perhaps two, had spurred me to completion.

This one is different, this one is truly compelling, with a fascinating story and an equally interesting narrative method. But — and please forgive me, Professor Grumbach, with your exhortation to leave the author his donné — I had wanted the book to be about something other than it was. I saw it as a window on today, but Priest firmly roots it in and maintains its focus on 9/11.

Even so:

I assumed that in an enlightened civilized society…there was no danger from the people we elect into positions of power… We assume that a government is essentially on our side, even if we did not vote for the party who takes power or the president who wins the election.

The story is simple: Benjamin Matson, a scientist by training and a journalist by profession, met, loved, and planned a life with a captivating and complex woman who is then presumably killed in the plane crash at the Pentagon on 9/11 — a scenario he becomes increasingly suspicious of as the years pass and contradictory information comes to light.

This is essentially a record of Ben’s research effort, and it relies more on conversations and interviews than on actions and deeds. Told in the first person by this highly reliable narrator, the story spirals and loops through time, describing incidents from “then” — 2000, 1996, 2005, 2006–2011 — interspersed, seemingly randomly, with incidents from “now.” There is a certain amount of repetition. We are told about the same interaction multiple times as new information and perspectives are added. Thus, the storytelling method is the same as the story: the format perfectly matches the content as a gradual, iterative, accretion of impressions.

While the narrator may be reliable, narrative is not — a point Priest immediately makes with his opening epigraph from Philip Zelikow, executive director of the 9/11 Commission:

In the rare cases when a historical event, especially a traumatic event, stirs emotions on a massive scale…it enters popular culture. Great numbers of people soon form beliefs about what happened and why — creating a historical narrative… People will try to make sense of the events that fit their prior understanding of how the world works.

Having thus primed us, Priest then very cleverly heightens our suspicions, putting us on uneasy alert to disinformation, dissonance, and distortion. His rejection of linear narrative in favor of repetitive iteration shows us time and time again that we — through our proxy Ben — often miss key information the first time around.

Further, Priest gives us three main characters Ben returns to at various intervals throughout the book; these function rather like a set of oracles with their respective totems: his current partner’s mother, Lucinda, and her unreliable memories (“I’m full of memories I’ve made up”); his dead lover Lil and her contradictions; the famed mathematician Tatarov and his proofs.  These three dispel, for both Ben and the reader, any remaining faith in knowable, objective reality.

The perspective is oddly bracing. We come to recognize with Ben that accepted wisdom is never the latter and so should never be the former. As he probes the circumstances of Lil’s death, he comes to find that

The story was shaped to fit into what few facts were known…

and that much of what we are left with is

…the vernacular history of 9/11… Based purely on hearsay — this loosely described event, unsupported by any evidence…

We must be on our guard and question everything, accept nothing.

For the price of complacency is high, and the possibility for manipulation via the democratized platform of free speech that is the Internet is very, very strong:

When the motive is malign, facts and known events are no longer empirical. They can be downgraded into theories, suspicions, lies, alleged conspiracies. They can be redacted. History itself falls into doubt.

Not to mention the future.


Book review

The Blind Assassin (Margaret Atwood)


Stick a shovel into the ground almost anywhere and some horrible thing or other will come to light.

This is the story — stories, really — of narrator Iris Chase Griffen. Her unsettling, uncompromising younger sister Laura is dead in the first sentence of the book. By page 17, her husband is dead. And, completely hooked, we have 600 pages to go.

The deliberate idiosyncrasy of the book is that even though it covers over a century on earth, and untold eons on the Planet Zycron, and embraces a wide range of topics most notably including relations between classes, generations, and genders, we ultimately are told very little by Iris about Iris. Or, as her obituary terms her, “Iris Chase Griffen, a Memorable Lady.”

A lady of memories. As she observes about her wedding picture:

I and the girl in the picture have ceased to be the same person. I am her outcome, the result of the life she once lived headlong; whereas she, if she can be said to exist at all, is composed only of what I remember. I have the better view — I can see her clearly, most of the time. But even if she knew enough to look, she can’t see me at all.

Atwood presents Iris and her memories through three separate narrative devices juxtaposed within the book’s fifteen sections: a memoir Iris is writing about herself and her family at the end of her life, brief articles from an array of journals and newspapers reporting on matters about and around Iris and her family, and excerpts from Laura Chase’s posthumously published novel, The Blind Assassin. This last is made up of a series of interludes between an unnamed woman and her unnamed lover who meet over a period of several years to share afternoons of lovemaking and storytelling in rented and borrowed rooms in and around Toronto. The stories he tells her are sad, savage mythically informed tales of the Planet Zycron. Featuring heavily in these stories are a blind assassin — one of the former child slaves who have gone blind from weaving the country’s fabled carpets and graduated on to become stealthy and sure killers — and the mute sacrificial virgin he comes to kill.

These segments were, to me, the least engaging.

The parts I liked best were Iris’s steady, dispassionate unfolding of her family history. Iris’s grandfather founded a button factory in the 1870s — stolid, practical buttons:

You could picture them on long underwear, holding up the flap at the back, and on the flies of men’s trousers. The things they concealed would have been pendulous, vulnerable, shameful, unavoidable — the category of objects the world needs but scorns.

Increasingly prosperous, Grandfather marries the genteel and cultured Adelia Montfort, who names the family estate Avilion — where Tennyson’s King Arthur went to die. They have three sons. I love how Iris describes how her father Norval proposed to her demure, teen-aged mother:

After they had skated around the pond several times, my father asked my mother to marry him. I expect he did it awkwardly, but awkwardness in men was a sign of sincerity then…All around them were the snow-covered rocks and the white icicles — everything white. Under their feet was the ice, which was white also, and under that the river water, with its eddies and undertows, dark but unseen. This was how I pictured that time, the time before Laura and I were born — so blank, so innocent, so solid to all appearances, but thin ice all the same. Beneath the surfaces of things was the unsaid, boiling slowly.

All this foreshadowing and sense of dread is paid off with World War I, which kills two of the Chase brothers and maims Norval, who loses an eye and gains a bad leg. Meanwhile, his young bride has become a nurse and is overseeing the family business after his father’s stroke. So Norval and Liliana have both seen and been and done too much and are unrecognizable to each other at war’s end. Moreover, she realizes that he has had others:

She must have been able to tell, the first time he laid a hand on her: the timidity, the reverence, would have been gone.


She did understand, or at least she understood that she was supposed to understand. She understood, and said nothing about it, and prayed for the power to forgive, and did forgive. But he can’t have found living with her forgiveness all that easy.

It is this strained marriage that Iris grows up in and Laura is born into. Then, it all ends a few years later when their mother miscarries and dies. The girls grow up, essentially neglected, emotionally stunted, haphazardly educated and then increasingly impoverished as the Depression destroys both the family business and their father, who turns to alcohol to deaden his pain.

I’ve lingered long on their childhood, because I found the keen observation of manners, mores, and personalities here particularly spell-binding. The gradual unspooling and reseeding of the family is the focus of most of the rest of the book, and introduces the revolutionary Alex Thomas who may or may not have burned down the button factory in a labor protest, but certainly captured the imaginations and hearts of the Chase girls. It also features the rich and rapacious Griffens: the spiteful Winifred and her brother Richard, who will marry Iris and attempt to subjugate Laura:

He was ruthless, but not like a lion; more like a sort of large rodent. He tunnelled underground; he killed things by chewing off their roots.

As the years unfold, it becomes evident that the unnamed woman in The Blind Assassin excerpts is someone we know very well and that Laura’s novel is not really a fiction. I figured out the identities of the lovers pretty early on, and I think this might have diminished some of the magic of the book for me — rather like watching a mystery where you know whodunnit, and you are thus more aware of the setups and subterfuges and distractions and red herrings. This did not, however, dull the pleasure offered by Atwood’s thoughtful prose and Iris’s diamond-hard perceptions. A few samples:

Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.

They were fearful of him, a little deferential. I gathered this from the play of the cigarette lighters: who lit what for whom, and how quickly.

But why bother about the end of the world? It’s the end of the world every day, for someone. Time rises and rises, and when it reaches the level of your eyes you drown.

And my favorite, this lovely extended metaphor that perfectly pairs opposites to convey the regularity of seasonality in a most unexpected, quietly distorted manner:

The season is turning on its hinges, the earth swings farther from the light; under the roadside bushes the paper trash of summer drifts like an omen of snow. The air is drying out, preparing us for the coming Sahara of centrally heated winter.

Iris notes toward the end of the book:

I look back over what I’ve written and I know it’s wrong, not because of what I’ve set down, but because of what I’ve omitted.

And that is true. She has withheld important information, and we must make the requisite leaps of logic or intuition at the ends of many chapters to fill in what Iris never speaks. And too, we realize, as I noted at the beginning, that when all is said and done, there are huge chunks of unspoken or only so briefly hinted-at incidents — which in fact comprise most of her years on earth — that we know nothing of.

Which calls our attention directly to how this story has been told us. And I wondered who is the architect who put together the memoir, the novel excerpts, and the helpful news bulletins. It can only be Atwood, which means we see the wizard quite clearly behind the curtain. And makes some of the lag in the book’s later sections and the discursive meanderings a bit less forgivable.

The picture is of happiness, the story not. Happiness is a garden walled with glass: there’s no way in or out. In Paradise, there are no stories, because there are no journeys. It’s loss and regret and misery and yearning that drive the story forward, along its twisted road.

Presumably, that is what we are to get from all this. That Iris had a twisted road of a life. Which seems a somewhat unsatisfying conclusion once the mystery is resolved.

But I should not be churlish. There is wondrous richness in this book, achingly elegant prose, a most singular narrator, and an exceedingly well-researched and cleanly conveyed encapsulation of the turmoil of the twentieth century. The Blind Assassin made for a smart and engaging companion for many, many days.


A Dream Fragment from May

I had originally planned to post this well over a month ago, under the title “From Fear to Knowledge: Coming to Grips” or some such, and building from the dream that follows into a discussion of Cartwright and Biddiss’s 2006 edition of Disease & History, a Sutton History Classics volume originally published in 1972 (which has now been superseded by a third edition from 2014). I found this book oddly comforting, as it essentially demonstrates, through quick and efficient encapsulations of past epidemics and pandemics — bubonic plague, smallpox, typhus — that we have been here before and come out the other side.

But somewhere between then and now, the post just didn’t happen. Like so much else. And all that remains of it is the dream.


A wild panoply of vivid, rich, crazy dreams ultimately filled with hope. The image I’m remembering best is being in the street, not any street I’ve known, but it was where home was, and a cart in front of the house, with two unconscious males, a man and a boy, naked and undernourished and covered with flies. They later arouse and were up to some unspecified unpleasantness. There were strangers in the street, not a mob, separate, getting signatures and importuning for attention to a variety of political causes and remedies. They were sinister and suspect. But that was ok, because I and whoever I was with were bringing Pete Buttigieg — my personal exemplar of reason and wisdom and calm — into the house and shutting the door. All the while Pete — and swirling around in conversations outside and in — was suggesting and expounding on a variety of solutions and innovations to be put in place. I remember the idea of a national pool, run by Las Vegas odds makers, on when various things would start to open. That may not have been the most forward-thinking or helpful of ideas. There was also a group-compiled open-source sort of 3D interactive map made up of videos from theme parks and attractions around the world, so when you clicked on a locale, you went to a first-person perspective video to experience that place. And everyone nationwide could be involved in making that. But the most serious and hopeful was an innovation council Mayor Pete was spearheading to foster outside-the-box thinking about how to get the country running again: a council of experts to vet ideas from the general populace and get good ideas going.