“The ball no question makes of ayes or noes;” or, Is this the ancient origin of baseball?

March 31, 2012 at 5:54 pm (Art)

[This post is a follow-up to The Met Museum in March.]

I spent an inordinate amount of time in front of this; staring, simply standing and staring….

Dating from between 380 to 246 BC, this relief is made of quartzite. Its dimensions are given as 33 7/16 by 27 15/16 inches. Its 1947 entry into the Met’s collection was facilitated by the Joseph Pulitzer Bequest.

On the Met’s site, the work is entitled “Ball-Playing Ceremony” and is subtitled, as it were: “the king before a goddess, possibly Hathor.” This further information follows:

This finely cut relief depicts a rite in which the king hits a ball before a goddess, often Hathor. Ptolemaic texts liken the ball to the eye of fiends who are enemies of the gods. Usually the king holds a stick.

Usually the king holds a stick….It looks to me as though the goddess is holding the stick, or a staff of some sort. At any rate, this is merely one of several instances encountered by me at the Met, in which a somewhat cryptic description of a  given work of art seemed to raise more questions than it answered.

Whatever its true import, “Ball-Playing Ceremony” held me in its thrall.

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Here’s the rest of the quatrain whose first line appears in the title of this post:

The Ball no Question makes of Ayes and Noes,
But Right or Left, as strikes the Player goes;
And he that toss’d Thee down into the Field,
He knows about it all — He knows — HE knows!

This is the fiftieth quatrain from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, translated by Edward Fitzgerald

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The Met Museum in March

March 31, 2012 at 1:08 am (Art, New York City)

I went to New York City this past weekend and spent roughly ten hours in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Of course, it was not nearly enough.

How could it possibly be? The Met’s website contains this statement: “Today, the Museum’s two-million-square-foot building houses over two million objects, tens of thousands of which are on view at any given time.” So you see, ten hours was downright paltry! (The building itself was designated a National Landmark in 1986.)

My first goal was to see the newly revamped American Wing:

The Metropolitan Museum’s collection of American art, one of the finest and most comprehensive in the world, returns to view in expanded, reconceived, and dramatic new galleries on January 16, 2012, when the Museum inaugurates the New American Wing Galleries for Paintings, Sculpture, and Decorative Arts. The new installation will provide visitors with a rich and captivating experience of the history of American art from the 18th through the early 20th century. The suite of elegant new galleries encompasses 30,000 square feet for the display of the Museum’s superb collection.

This final phase of the American Wing renovation project is comprised of 26 renovated and enlarged galleries on the second floor. The new architectural design is a contemporary interpretation of 19th-century Beaux-Arts galleries, including coved ceilings and natural light flowing through new skylights. The redesign, which has added 3,300 square feet of gallery space, also allows for a chronological installation of the American paintings and sculpture, and improved pathways connecting to adjacent areas of the Museum.

(For the full text of this article, click here.)

In order to view this marvel, one must penetrate to the farther recesses of the museum. I chose to enter via the Egyptian Art Gallery. Well, to heck with goals; there was no rushing through this:

For more on the Met’s amazing Egyptian galleries, go to the list of “Galleries” on the museum’s site. The Egyptian Galleries are ninth. If you can’t stop yourself from looking at other things along the way – well, believe me, I understand!

And we will get to the New American Wing – eventually….

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The London Train, by Tessa Hadley

March 22, 2012 at 6:37 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books)

  A chance meeting on a train alters the lives of two people.

But does it really?

When we first meet Paul, a writer, he is on his way to London from his home in Wales. The purpose of his journey is to claim the body of his mother Evelyn, who has just died. Evelyn had been in declining health for some time; nevertheless, her death comes as a profound shock to Paul, pitching him into a deep well of melancholy:

He wished he could remember better those passages in The Aeneid where Anchises in the Underworld explains to his son how the dead are gradually cleansed in the afterlife of all the thick filth and encrusting shadows that have accumulated through their mortal involvement, their living; when after aeons they are restored to pure spirit, they long, they eagerly aspire, to return to life and the world and live again.

(I’m not sure how much of that is Virgil and how much Tessa Hadley, but all of it struck me as astonishingly beautiful.)

Paul has been thrown back to his knowledge of the classics as he searches for a mode of expression that would fully convey the depth of his grief. Meanwhile, he must return to Wales, and to his family: his sympathetic wife Elise and his two young daughters. Paul also has an older daughter from a previous marriage. Her name is Pia, and she becomes the center of the next drama to consume Paul’s life.

And after the crisis with Pia, there’s yet another drama – but I get ahead of myself….

In fact, to say more about the plot, at this point, would be to give too much away. So I’ll just say that I became quite absorbed in the lives of these characters, none of them especially extraordinary people but interesting nonetheless, as Tessa Hadley describes their varying, unpredictable, and erratic journeys through life. I was in the mood for a novel like this when I plucked it from the new book shelf at the library. I knew little about this particular book, though I’d heard good things about the author.

The London Train is a bifurcated work, in that at the half way point, Hadley begins a whole new narrative, featuring characters we have not heretofore encountered. I admit that at first I felt frustrated by this, as I was by then thoroughly immersed in the story of Paul and his family. I do feel that the second part is not quite as compelling as the first, but I had in general such a good feeling about the novel that I kept going, and in the end felt rewarded at having done so.

The reviewer in The Independent says the following: “Tessa Hadley is an understated writer whose concentration on the details of everyday life belies a breathtaking acuity and articulateness.” I agree. (And I would warmly recommend this title for book discussion groups.)

Tessa Hadley

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Los Angeles in literature

March 12, 2012 at 12:54 am (books, California, Film and television, Mystery fiction)

Today’s Washington Post Magazine contains an enjoyable feature on the literary landmarks of Los Angeles. Writer Bill Thomas first and foremost makes a point of how changeable the landscape of the “City of Angles” actually is. There is a restaurant, however, that is peopled with the ghosts of great screenwriters of the past. The Musso and Frank Grill, est. 1919, in its day played host to the likes of William Faulkner, Nathanael West, F Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, James M Cain, Dashiell Hammett, Lillian Hellman, and Ernest Hemingway. 

Says manager Mark Echeverria: “In the 1930s, and ’40s, the movie studios hired a lot of novelists to come out to Hollywood and write screenplays. Of course, the studios would hack their work to pieces. So, they’d walk over here to get drunk and vent.”

Nathanael West – born Nathan Weinstein in New York City – has long fascinated me. I read Miss Lonelyhearts in college. Thomas’s article has served to remind me that I need to read The Day of the Locust, considered by many to be West’s masterpiece and one of the genuinely great novels of Hollywood.   (West’s oeuvre, though celebrated, is slight in length.  In 1940, while on his way to Scott Fitzgerald’s funeral, he ran a stop sign and was killed along with his wife in the ensuing crack-up. He was 37 years old.)

Although much of the landscape of mid-twentieth century Los Angeles has been altered, the house used as the dwelling place of femme fatale Phyllis Nirdlinger, last name “Dietrichson” in the film version of Double Indemnity, still stands. Bill Thomas went to see it:

The colorful Spanish colonial house on Quebec Drive that was used in the movie doesn’t look nearly as ominous as it did in black-and-white, or grab your attention like the one Cain introduces in the first paragraph of the book. Insurance salesman Walter Huff (“Neff” in the movie), whose affair with a customer’s wife leads to homicide, tells the story in the form of a confession: “I drove out to Glendale to put three new truck drivers on a brewery company bond, and then I remembered this renewal over in Hollywoodland. I decided to run over there. That was how I came to this House of Death, that you’ve been reading about in the papers.”

  Last September, the Usual Suspects enjoyed a vigorous and enlightening discussion of James M Cain’s classic noir novel. Several of us also watched the film. While researching my blog post on that discussion, I came across a rather astonishing fact. Three years ago, in 2009, two American mystery writers and a French journalist discovered that  some sixteen minutes into the film Double Indemnity, Raymond Chandler makes a brief uncredited appearance. How strange it is that some sixty-five years after the film’s initial release (and after years of intensive study of this landmark in the film noir canon), the presence of this cameo should first be detected and reported by two unrelated parties in different countries. The Guardian ran a piece on this remarkable find. And here’s the actual scene, rendered in both real time, slow motion, and even slower motion. (The music is Miklos Rozsa‘s chilling score):

Probably the most notorious actual crime that occurred in Los Angeles in this postwar period is the 1947 murder of  Elizabeth Short. Almost invariably referred to as the “Black Dahlia” murder, this case has intrigued novelists, filmmakers, and investigative journalists for decades. Bill Thomas provides the context:

A wave of violent crime hit L.A. in the late 1940s. Growing prosperity, a larger population and an influx of ex-GIs exposed to the brutality of war were all blamed at the time for the upsurge in lawlessness. Whatever the cause, there’s nothing left to remind anyone what happened here. The vacant lot on South Norton Avenue where Short’s body was found has been developed into part of a quiet palm-treed subdivision of modest ranch-style homes with manicured lawns, not what you’d associate with a grisly homicide.

    James Ellroy, author of a highly praised novel based on this crime, knows from personal experience about the lawlessness of the Los Angeles of his youth: his mother, a nurse, was murdered in 1958. Just as with Elizabeth Short, the killer of Geneva Hilliker Ellroy has never been found.

Ellroy writes about this tragedy and how it affected his life in My Dark Places, a memoir that is both hard hitting and very poignant.

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  Two authors not covered by Bill Thomas are worthy of mention here. The first is John McPhee. His piece “Los Angeles Against the Mountains” originally appeared in The New Yorker Magazine  and was subsequently included in the collection The Control of Nature. There’s more than a hint of irony in that title. Controlling nature is exactly  what the denizens of Shields Canyon in Greater Los Angeles thought they’d succeeded in doing. The Genofile family were among those who dwelled in this typically paradisiacal residential community in southern California.

One night, after there had been torrential rain in Shield Canyon, Jackie and Bob Genofile heard a loud noise, which was followed by silence. They and their two teen-aged children looked out a rear window of their single story house. Jackie describes what they saw: “It was just one big black thing coming at us, rolling, rolling with a lot of water in front of it, pushing the water, this big black thing. It was just one big black hill coming toward us.” What follows is one of the most terrifying descriptions of a natural disaster – or perhaps a better term would be natural/man made disaster – that I have ever read. The entire Genofile family came within inches of complete annihilation.

Thar’s just one incident – the first, in this long, mesmerizing essay, a form that has attained near perfection in the masterful hands of John McPhee.

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  Another who I believe ranks high in the pantheon of Southern California writers is Ross MacDonald. Ages ago, my lifelong friend Helene handed me The Zebra Striped Hearse. I was immediately hooked. I read as many of the Lew Archer books as I could get my hands on. I asked Helene what, in her opinion, accounts for the peculiar power of these novels? She replied that they’re like Greek tragedies. The destructive effect of warped family relations have rarely been depicted as so devastating and so inevitable. And for my money, this paradigm – which does indeed seem doomed to play itself out over and over again, with Lew Archer as the Greek chorus –  is nowhere more powerfully bodied forth than in The Zebra Striped Hearse.

Oh – and I love the spare eloquence of MacDonald’s writing:

The striped hearse was standing empty among some other cars off the highway above Zuma. I parked behind it and went down to the beach to search for its owner. Bonfires were scattered along the shore, like the bivouacs of nomad tribes or nuclear war survivors. The tide was high and the breakers loomed up marbled black and fell white out of oceanic darkness.

Ross MacDonald

Nathanael West

James M Cain

John McPhee

James Ellroy

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Velasquez and The Surrender of Breda: The Making of a Masterpiece, by Anthony Bailey. The early years.

March 9, 2012 at 1:54 am (Art, books)

Diego Velasquez was born in Seville in 1599. (As I was telling my cousin about this book, she exclaimed, “Ah, Sevilla!” – the double “ll’s” sounding like a “y.” She had been there recently; it was place of happy memories for her.)

Velasquez achieved distinction as a painter early on – enough distinction to give him hope that he might become painter to the court of King Philip IV in Madrid. With this goal in mind, he moved with his family to Madrid in 1622, where in a relatively short space of time he achieved his goal.

Here are two of the most famous paintings from Velasquez’s youthful apprenticeship in Seville:

An Old Woman Cooking Eggs

The Waterseller of Seville

Anthony Bailey names The Waterseller of Seville, also known as El Corzo, the Corsican, as Velasquez’s greatest work from the early years in Seville:

Once again Velasquez has chosen a humble actor for a leading role. At the time water sellers were found all over Spain, and in places like Seville, in summer, they did a vital job. In hundred-degree Fahrenheit heat, water was truly the most precious element. At the entrance to every inn in southern Spain…a clay waterpot or alcarraza hung, ready for  those arriving to take a long drink from. The Corsican with his big jars of water was not so much a tramp or peddler as a bearer of blessings. For the parched, his clear cool water tasted sweeter than any wine. “Agua muy rica,” very tasty water, was how it was described by  the sellers, and so it felt when one drank it….The painting also has something sacramental about it. Water had an almost religious importance in this part of Spain. The boy’s contemplative look, not saying anything aloud as he presents the goblet to El Corzo in a  way as acolyte to priest, conveys his participation in an act of communion, a mystery. Jar, water, glass, the server and the recipient–in all things are signs of God’s presence.

The boy in both paintings – the “well-known chubby-cheeked boy,” as Anthony Bailey calls him – was probably modeled by the same young person.

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A novel about opera will itself become an opera

March 4, 2012 at 5:30 pm (books, Music, opera)

I was delighted to read in this morning’s papers of the coming convergence of two of my favorite art forms.

At Chicago’s Lyric Opera, preparations are now in hand to transform Ann Patchett’s marvelous novel Bel Canto into an opera.  The project was conceived by renowned soprano Renee Fleming, who since 2010 has served as the Lyric Opera’s creative consultant. Jimmy Lopez, a native of Peru, has been chosen as composer.

Jimmy Lopez

(This would seem an especially apt selection, as the novel’s action takes place in that country.) The libretto will be written by playwright Nilo Cruz.

Nilo Cruz

And this is very exciting news: the lead role of the singer Roxanne Coss is to be sung by Danielle de Niese, whose work in the Met’s Enchanted Island was so superb.

Danielle de Niese

Bel Canto is scheduled for performance during the Lyric Opera’s 2015-2016 season.

Andrew Davis, the Lyric Opera's music director, Renee Fleming, and Ann Patchett

Click here and here for articles about Bel Canto in Chicago. (I wrote about Renee Fleming and Ann Patchett in my review of the latter’s novel State of Wonder.)

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Fortunate are those folks who live in the Windy City and can partake of its rich and varied cultural offerings. You know – folks like these:

My granddaughter Etta, daughter-in-law Erica, and son Ben

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Pulse-pounding, unputdownable thrillers, Part Two: The Fear Index by Robert Harris

March 2, 2012 at 1:05 pm (Book review, books)

[Click here for Part One.]

Dr. Alex Hoffmann is the brains behind Hoffmann Investment Technologies, a fabulously successful hedge fund based in Geneva, Switzerland. Hoffmann, an American, had previously worked as a physicist at the Large Hadron Collider. Various issues in his personal and professional life caused him to switch to the field of high finance.

Here’s what a typical day is like on the trading floor of Hoffmann Investment Technologies:

The Japanese stock market would close in fifteen minutes, the European exchanges would open at nine, and already four dozen quantitative analysts–quants, in the dismissive jargon of the trade–were hard at work. None talked above a whisper. Most stared silently at  their six-screen arrays. Giant plasma televisions with muted sound carried CNBC and Bloomberg, while beneath the TVs a glowing red line of digital clocks noiselessly recorded time’s relentless passage in Tokyo, Beijing, Moscow, Geneva, London and New York. This  was the sound that money made in the second decade of the twenty-first century.  The occasional soft clatter on a keyboard was the only indication that humans were present at all.

And here is the company’s credo:

THE COMPANY OF THE FUTURE WILL HAVE NO PAPER
THE COMPANY OF THE FUTURE WILL CARRY
NO INVENTORY
THE COMPANY OF THE FUTURE WILL BE
ENTIRELY DIGITAL
THE COMPANY OF THE FUTURE HAS ARRIVED

They really mean that part about the paper. At one point, Alex’s business partner Hugo Quarry must give an inspector special permission to use an ink pen and a notebook: “‘We’re not allowed to use carbon-based data-retrieval systems on the premises–that’s notebooks and newspapers to you and me.” This sounds almost comical, but there is nothing comical about the situation that has brought Inspector Jean-Philippe Leclerc of the Geneva Police Department  to the headquarters of Hoffmann Investment Technologies.The most rigorous security system imaginable has been breached. And not just on one, but on several fronts. And it’s not just Alex’s company that’s at risk: financial institutions all over the world are facing a possible meltdown.

I will, alas, trip all over myself if I try to explain any of this in more detail. I do encourage you, though, not to be put off by the financial and technological complexities that are part and parcel of this narrative. There is still the human element, and that element is most intriguing. I admit that my first impression of Alex Hoffmann was not a favorable one. I sensed that I was in the presence of one of those individuals whose belief in his or her own rightness and invincibility was boundless.

But as events unfolded, my regard for this character grew. Alex needs all the determination, courage, and resourcefulness he can muster to unmask an exceptionally cunning foe, one who has set out to destroy everything he has built through a lifetime of  Herculean effort. And Alex is simply not about to let that happen.

  Robert Harris is an author I greatly admire. Not only are his contemporary thrillers, like The Ghost, top notch, but his historical novels make for rich and engrossing reading. Pompeii brings that famous catastrophe to vivid life. And I have very much enjoyed Imperium and Conspirata, the first two novels in a projected trilogy dealing with the life of Cicero.

 

 

(I also recommend the audiobook version of these last two titles, read by Simon Jones.)

The Fear Index is slated to become a film, with the author currently working on the screenplay. And if you haven’t seen the 2010 film of The Ghost, I highly recommend that, too. (The film version was retitled The Ghost Writer.)

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Pulse-pounding, unputdownable thrillers; or, be careful what you wish for…

March 1, 2012 at 3:23 am (Book review, books)

    In January, I wrote about four mysteries that moved with varying degrees of slowness. I confessed that I was yearning for a fast mover, a compelling narrative that would keep me glued to the page (yes, the page, not the screen; I’m still wedded to the old fashioned, time honored way of reading). I’ve just read two novels that did the trick and then some.

The first was All Cry Chaos by Leonard Rosen. On the eve of a speech he’s to deliver before the World Trade Organization in Amsterdam, James Fenster, a brilliant mathematician, is assassinated. The killing is carried out in his hotel by means of a cunningly engineered explosion. The lead investigator in the case is an Interpol agent of French nationality named Henri Poincaré. That name has special significance: Poincaré is the great grandson of Jules Poincaré,  described in Wikipedia as follows:

Jules Henri Poincaré (29 April 1854 – 17 July 1912)… was a French mathematician, theoretical physicist, engineer, and a philosopher of science. He is often described as a polymath, and in mathematics as The Last Universalist, since he excelled in all fields of the discipline as it existed during his lifetime.

As a mathematician and physicist, he made many original fundamental contributions to pure and applied mathematics, mathematical physics, and celestial mechanics. He was responsible for formulating the Poincaré conjecture, one of the most famous unsolved problems in mathematics, until it was solved in 2002–3. In his research on the three-body problem, Poincaré became the first person to discover a chaotic deterministic system which laid the foundations of modern chaos theory. He is also considered to be one of the founders of the field of topology.

Unlike his distinguished ancestor, Henri Poincaré is not a mathematician. But the case he is embarked upon is intimately connected with chaos theory. James Fenster had taught at Harvard, so Poincaré’s inquiry naturally takes him to Cambridge. While there, he uncovers some strange and deeply intriguing facts about Fenster’s life and work. And as regards this novel’s plot, I think I’d better stop right there.

The Kirkus Review of All Cry Chaos describes it as a “hugely ambitious debut thriller.” There were moments when I wondered if it weren’t too ambitious. The overlay of the end-of-days scenario struck me as an unwelcome distraction from the business at hand, which was sufficiently harrowing (not to mention fiendishly complex) in and of itself. Yet it does appear that Leonard Rosen wanted to imbue this novel with a degree of gravitas. In that aim I believe he succeeded.

Here, Henri Poincaré recalls the occasion, many years ago, of the baptism of his son Etienne. Henri himself is not religious, but his wife Claire is; it was at her insistence that the ceremony was performed. Henri’s own reaction to it was completely unanticipated:

She had insisted that Etienne be baptized, and he agreed though he thought the ceremony little more than voodoo. How surprised he was, then, at the emotions rising in him when the priest offered a blessing and sprinkled holy water on the forehead of his son. That some could consider water holy, that Etienne, who was holy in Henri’s sight, would be blessed by another in the name of mysteries larger that them all; that sacrament could take place in a cathedral built when oxcarts plied the muddy streets of Lyon; that his wife and her family, without embarrassment, could welcome Etienne  into a fellowship two thousand years old; that he, Poincaré, a rank non-believer, could be moved so nearly to tears at  the ceremony that he forced himself to turn away, sharply, in search of control–all this stood as evidence to a single fact: that Henri Poincaré was a man who longed to believe, a man who was moved by mystery and  beauty but a man for whom belief was impossible.

  Leonard Rosen is a graduate of Me’ah, a special program of study offered by Hebrew College in Newton Centre, Massachusetts. His comments on the experience are in his alumni profile, the third of six profiles on this page.

All Cry Chaos has been nominated for the 2012 Edgar Allan Poe Awards in the category of Best First Novel by an American Author. It’s a well deserved honor, in my opinion.

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The Fear Index by Robert Harris is the second of the two thrillers alluded to above. A post on that novel is forthcoming.

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