9/16/19

Gems from the Strong: Click image for bigger size

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Note the 'wholesome' imagery
Strange fish in tank.
Mr. Trump in the White House with a stilleto
When I was a kid, we used real potatoes!


Steady hand needed. Abandoned MD dreams!
Wish I had this one!


Love me tender, love me true...
This one looks like the goal is to emasculate the cop
Note the connection between play and propaganda



Here's why St. Louis Univ. teams are the Billikens

Early board game

Just love the name!

As a matter of fact, there WAS a Google before Google!


If you didn't know, "yellow journalism" derives from this. Thought to be the first cartoon. NOT an Asian, rather a barefooted Irish kid, Mickey Dugan.https://www.blogger.com/blogger.g?blogID=6304832159039712637#editor/target=post;postID=8182208674137985645;onPublishedMenu=allposts;onClosedMenu=allposts;postNum=0;src=postname

Strong Museum is a Great Excuse to Visit Rochester


The Strong Museum of Play
Rochester, New York


Rochester seldom appears on lists of great tourist destinations. In the eyes of many, it’s just another small played-out postindustrial city with oversized urban problems. In truth, it’s well worth a visit. In late August I posted a piece on the delightful George Eastman House and Museum. Rochester also has tranquil walks along the water-filled Erie Canal, beaches along Lake Ontario, a sweet minor league baseball stadium, a Frederick Douglass monument, and the Susan B. Anthony House. But if that doesn’t convince you, try this: the Strong Museum of Play.

I haven’t had this much youthful fun since I actually was a youth. The museum began life as a monetary and collection donation from philanthropist Margaret Woodbury Strong in 1969. It has grown since then, an understatement if ever there was one. These days we are talking mega big–as in 13.5 acres and over 285,000 square feet of buildings. It’s been so successful that new parking garages and exhibition spaces are in the works that will double the existing size.

It is as advertised, a museum devoted to how Americans, especially children, have played. You name it and it’s there. First of all, it houses both the National Toy Hall of Fame and the National Video Game Hall of Fame. They work like any other Hall of Fame, which is to say there are committees whose members mull over nominations and vote on which toys are worthy of inclusion. You can find the complete list online and you’ll notice it includes everything from Barbie to Mr. Potato Head, the Teddy Bear, Checkers, Big Wheels, Silly Putty, and the cardboard box. All of the winners are displayed in cases within the Hall of Fame area. There’s a separate hall for video games, plus the International Center for the History of Electronic Games.

As the saying goes, but wait, there’s more. There’s also a butterfly garden, an exhibit devoted to D.C. Superheroes, and archives should you tire of fun and decide you positively must do academic research! Okay, I’m being snarky on the last one. Actually, this place takes play seriously and even publishes the Journal of Play. And why not? Why on earth should work be treated more seriously than play and recreation–especially in a postindustrial city? If you want to get philosophical, in a saner society the very point of work would be to secure time and resources to play.

If my previous comment strikes you as trite or naïve, reserve judgment until you’ve strolled among the cases of America at Play. It is the heart of the museum. It is a time capsule of how Americans have entertained themselves from time immemorial. You cannot help overhearing remarks such as, “I had that toy!” and “Oh my, I haven’t thought about that game for years.” Chances are good you will be among those making such exclamations. It’s all there: board games, improvised toys, dolls, sporting goods, model airplanes, novelty banks, sleds, bicycles, and so on. I instantly time warped upon seeing Lionel trains, Operation, and Rock 'em Sock 'em robots. There are more than half a million items overall, including fads that soared like the Hula Hoop and those that bombed such as the oh-so-lame attempt at making an electric football game. The goal of the last, insofar I could ever determine, was to waste time lining up 11 players on each side, flipping a switch that made the board vibrate, and watching the figures fall over. On the other hand, I saw a medieval knights and castle set that I had when I was in first grade that sparked my earliest love of history.

The Strong is also loaded with interactive kiosks and oversized sites where you can do activities such as engage a Rube Goldberg machine, play Twister, send Hot Wheels down a chute and maze, or allow a large Etch-a-Sketch to draw your profile. It’s not just children who squeal with delight at these attractions. If anything, adults need to be self-disciplined enough not to bogart the play stations.

Some might be bothered by the overt commercialism on display at the Strong. The most distressing of these is a Wegman’s where youngsters push carts through aisles and place plastic groceries in a cart before “checking out” and getting their “bill.” This one raised my hackles, but I lowered them while perambulating the America at Play section. The truth is that play has long been commercialized, as you can see in board games that were gendered and class-based. “The Dating Game” should have made Phyllis Schlafly into a feminist, but there have long been games that subtly indoctrinated some children to become tycoons and others to pursue a career as an office boy.

But enough of that. As I remarked to my wife and my friend Tim several times while smiling and laughing my way through the Strong: “It’s impossible to be cynical about this place.” If I’m wrong about that, I shall insist that I don’t know you!

If you want to see more images from this museum, go to the photo file marked "Gems from the Strong Museum"

Rob Weir  



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9/13/19

Washington Black Earns its Praise

Washington Black
By Esi Edugyan
Knopf, 352 pages
* * * * *

This fascinating novel from Canadian Ghanian writer Esi Edugyan is up for consideration for the Man Booker Prize. Although my vote would go Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight, it certainly wouldn’t make me upset were Ms. Edugyan to win.

Washington Black is about searching, dreaming, and the elusiveness of freedom. Its namesake narrator is a slave on a sugar plantation in British Barbados in the 1830s. Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807 and slavery itself was illegal after August of 1834, though such ‘technicalities’ took a bit longer to go into effect. In 1830, the year this novel opens, young Washington Black has no thoughts of freedom other than those put into his head by Big Kit, a slave who teaches Washington the ins and outs of getting by and plants the idea that if worst comes to worst, they could commit suicide and allow their souls to fly back to Dahomey,
where she claims to be of royal blood. All of this is so much gibberish to Washington, who is uneducated, without known parents, and has never been off  Faith Plantation.

Several things disrupt Washington’s life, the first of which occurs when Faith Plantation’s laissez-faire master dies and his son Erasmus Wilde takes over. Erasmus vows to take a Simon Legree-like iron-fisted approach toward slaves, a regimen built upon equal parts drive system and humiliation. There were few places on earth where it was worse to be a slave than in the Caribbean, where most in bondage died within 7-9 years. That might have been Washington’s fate, had it not been for the arrival of Christopher “Titch” Wilde, Erasmus’ eccentric younger brother.

Titch is equal parts scientist and mad inventor and he chooses Washington as his personal assistant. Edugyan pulls a page or two from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to show the myriad cultural disconnections between black slaves and whites, even those with good intentions. Put simply, they lived in different worlds in both a literal and symbolic sense. One of the many virtues of Edugyan’s work is that she does not sermonize. If anything, Washington is the most distrustful character in the book and he’s not always right in ascribing motives. He proves a not-very-good student when it comes to book learning, but displays an innate talent for drawing precise renderings of the specimens in Titch’s makeshift lab. When Wilde cousin Peter arrives, Washington will also come to learn that Titch’s family dynamics are no more enviable than his own.

But what adventures Washington is destined to have. Let me tantalize you by saying that plots and subplots revolve around an unstable hot air balloon, a ship bound for the Arctic, the capture of an octopus, flight from slave catcher, dwelling among the Inuit people, life Nova Scotia, and then London with side trips to the Midlands, Amsterdam, Paris, and Morocco. Washington will grow up, meet famed marine zoologist Geoffrey Michael Goff, and have an affair with his mixed race daughter Tanna. Can Washington trust any of them? What happened when Titch disappeared in the Arctic? What did Titch mean when he told Washington that he treated him “like family?” Is that a compliment, a delusion, or an insult? Is Titch even sane?

Several things make Washington Black more than another novel about the horrors of slavery. First, it is beautifully written. It’s not just the elegance of the prose; Edugyan also embeds metaphors throughout the book that lend gravitas to her words. Nearly everything in this novel has a double meaning: family, flight, captivity, scars, illustrations…. Second, Edugyan has little time for pat answers. Uppercase Truth is in short supply in Washington Black. Instead there are real deceptions, apparent deceptions, half-truths, gross misunderstandings, deserved skepticism, and flat-out wrongheadedness. This means that Washington Black is ultimately a book that’s about more than how one “sees” the world; on a deeper level it’s about how we “see” and fail to “see” others. To introduce still another of the book’s metaphors, it’s a work about the differences between surface and depth.

As I implied earlier, Washington Black is a flawed hero. His vision is often clouded and don’t assume for a moment that Edugyan intends an Arctic whiteout or a dessert windstorm to mean just snow or sand. Washington’s troubled soul is often the source of chaos. At one point Tanna says to him, “You are like an interruption in a novel, Wash. The agent that sets things off course. Like a hailstorm. Or a wedding.”

This is a smart book that goes beyond simplistic right/wrong scenarios. If you think you’ve read enough about slavery to skip this book, you’re just wrong. Washington Black has something so many other novels lack: nuance.

Rob Weir

9/11/19

THAD, Welty, More, Ramsey: The Mysteries of Indie Rock


Welcome to the "Indie Rock" edition of Off-Center Views. Indie rock used to mean that a performer was unsigned. These days it's a label that bleeds into Americana and is just as ambiguous. For sake of discussion, let's acknowledge that the borders are porous but that Americana tends to be encompass music from the folk, blues, and roots spectrum whereas indie music borrows more from rock, pop, and other electric-based sounds. Its trademarks are to start soft, and cut to a moment where a bunch of instruments jump in suddenly. Often there is also a lot of "whoa-oooo-ahh-ah" vocal filler.

We will revisit the what-do-you-want-to-call-it question many more times on this blog, but for now here are four for thought.

Let's start with THAD and his West Coast EP. THAD is Thad Cockerell, who used to front a Nashville rock band called League. If you want to know how that's worked out so far, listen to "Fill My Cup": I've been walking to the city/ I cannot see… I am tired/And I am lonely/It's hard to keep on doing thisI am you child in need. He sings it with earnestness, smoothness, and the soft to loud format mentioned above. I can't even imagine how many musicians can relate to that sentiment! "All I Want" has the rapid beats per minute urgency of 80s' New Wave music. This one is about self-examination, a different kind of urgency. "Susie From the West Coast" is a love song that is his answer to the previous song's longing of All I want is you. It's a tender and quieter counterpoint to the other two pieces and perhaps a lesson that indie performers do best when they mix things up.     

San Diego-based Steve Welty views indie rock from a perspective occasionally spiced with hints of reggae. He has two EPs recorded in 2018 on offer–26 Black and Fly With Me–that are tantalizing come-ons for several new singles and an LP I've heard is in progress. You can definitely hear the reggae influence on "Done Drinkin'." These come through in both solo and studio versions. In case you don't get it, there are references to "kick drums" and "reggae grooves" in the lyrics, some "ba-ba-ba-ba" riffs, and accents that skirt the edge of cultural appropriation. Good song, though, if you can leave your PC on the shelf. The reggae influences are more subtle in the wonderfully named "I Never Dreamed to Be Employed." 26 Black also sports folk/folk rock offerings. In fact,  "Floating in Space" has a few New Age ameliorative adornments. It's a love song, but one in which the main point–I need you in my life–comes about through the enlightenment that comes from floating in space in ways that are only partially metaphorical. Things get a bit confusing as this song is also the title track on Fly With Me. Welty's hardly the first musician to rename a song, but I wanted to warn you so you don't think you're having a senior moment. Staying in the celestial mood, you'll hear more reggae-influenced grooves on "Falling Star."  Reverberating electric guitar also spice "Little Steps" with interstellar suggestiveness. Then it's back to acoustic reggae for "Stronger As One." Welty's light tenor voice and a repertoire that plays well with or without a band begs the question as to whether he's a folk or an indie rock artist but like I said, these days boundaries are in the eyes of the beholder.

Peter More takes a Tex-Mex approach to indie rock. This EP has smoother production, as one might expect given that Donald Fagen (Steely Dan's producer) is at the helm. The EP is several songs left off of his recent album Beautiful Disrepair and is thus titled Shoulder, wordplay on the definition of shoulder that means to push something out of the way. (The EP also has a few songs from the album.) More has a high tenor voice that he shouts out when he goes electric. You can hear that when he goes big on the title track. These days, though, he's been working with Spanish flamenco guitarist Jose Juan Poyato and More's music has gotten quieter and more introspective. A fine example of this is "Caddis Moon," which is a searching-for-wisdom song tinged with an ambience of melancholy. "What We Used to Be" is plenty energetic, but it has a shinier bluegrass/honky tonk/rock vibe. Pay attention to the small echoes of horn (trombone?) in the background. I actually like More's music best when he lowers the noise level. If that's also your taste, try "Marlene," his sweet find-you-someday song backed by Amy Helm.

Tyler Ramsey is a performer who gets tagged with just about everything: folk, folk rock, Southern, indie.... If his name sounds familiar to you, that's because he was for years the lead guitarist for Band of Horses. His Candler Sessions EP is named for the woodsy town 20 minutes outside of Asheville where he and his family now live. The EP is a sampler of songs from his new album For the Morning. You need listen to approximately 20 seconds of "A Dream of Home" to both feel his nostalgic rootedness and think, "Neil Young," especially Young's early days with Crazy Horse. Replace Young's lyrics of "Everybody Knows This is Nowhere" (Everybody seems to wonder/What It's like down there/I gotta get away/From this day-to-day/Running around…) with Ramsey's There's a dream of home/For those that work out on the road/And there's a vision of the road for all the others… There'll be a time you wish you could trade your life for another and you know you're on homage turf. "Your Whole Life" has a few more mountain inflections in Ramsey's voice, but you will also hear plaintive vocal colorings that characterize Young. Mind, I am not saying that Ramsey is in any sense derivative. Call it a fortunate evocation. I enjoyed every song on this EP, especially "The Valley Wind." You can also find the title track of his new album on YouTube. It, like all of Ramsey's songs, begs our central question. Is it indie rock, Americana, folk, or something else? How 'bout we just call it good music?

Rob Weir
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9/9/19

Christians Supporting Trump are Blasphemers



If you are irreligious, maybe you don't need to read this. Then again, maybe you do!

Nothing much seems to faze Trump zealots, so here's a call to those who call themselves Christians. If you support Trump, you are a blasphemer. I don't mean this metaphorically; I mean it literally. If you are pro-Trump, you mock the very foundations of your purported faith.   

I will not delve into Trump's politics, his appalling personal immorality, his incivility, and the daily doses of mean-spirited nastiness he doles out. Instead I call attention to a remark he made at the end of August. In the midst of defending his trade war with China Trump suddenly declared, "I am the chosen one." It was an unprompted comment from which he backpedaled days later. He claimed it was just a "joke," and resorted to his usual script of claiming it was "fake news" cooked up by the media. But then again, he has also said that any Jew voting against him is "disloyal." He hasn't repudiated that.

Whoa! If you are the slightest bit Christian, these are not joking matters. Check out the first three Commandments! What I'm about to say is Biblical, not political. I dislike Trump intensely, but I'm going to cite chapter and verse. Not many people know this, but I once contemplated going to seminary. I had no interest in being a minister; I simply wanted to study theology. I was working on an M.A. in medieval history and grew fascinated with how Christianity evolved as both a spiritual and philosophical system. I didn't go to seminary, but I did read a lot of theological and philosophical treatises, and the Bible twice. I may be rusty, but I know my way around Scriptures and theological discourse well enough to say that Trump's words and behaviors are suggestive of those of Satan and the Antichrist.

It bears noting that it's likely that the images you hold of Satan are probably those that came from the Middle Ages. They are more out of paintings by Albrecht Durer and Hieronymus Bosch than Biblical text. The word Satan translates "adversary," though the Old Testament uses Lucifer more often, which means, "light bringer." In Hebrew it translates "shining one" or "morning star." In other words, the Devil isn't a burnt, behorned, pitchfork carrier; he's an attractive deceiver. Generally, Satan is viewed as the "ruler of this world." (John 12:31, II Corinthians 4:4)*

Check out some of the things the New Testament has to say. Bear in mind that Trump has uttered more than 12,000 falsehoods since taking office. John 8:44 relates that Satan "has nothing to do with the truth because there is no truth in him. When he lies he speaks according to his own nature, for he is the father of lies." As the "ruler of this world," Satan tempted Jesus with riches and control of over worldly things: "To you I will give all this authority and their glory; for it has been delivered to me." (Luke 4:6) Contrast Trump's "I am the chosen one" to Luke 9:35, when Jesus is anointed: "And a voice came out the cloud, saying, 'This is my son, my chosen one.'" In the Middle Ages Trump could have been burned at the stake for his remark. Again, I mean this literally.

Now a dose of Matthew 24:4-5: Jesus remarked, "Take heed no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, 'I am the Christ,' and they will lead many astray. In verse 24 Jesus is more explicit: "For false Christs and false prophets will arise and show many signs and wonder, so as to lead astray…." II Corinthians  11:13-15 reemphasizes this: "For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is not strange if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness."

II Thessalonians takes it to the next level. For those Christians thinking of the end times, Trump should be an alarm: "… for that day will not come, unless rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God." (2:1-2) Later there is a passage  ascribed to the doings of the Antichrist: "The coming of the lawless one by the activity of Satan will be all power and with pretended signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception for those who are to perish…." (2:9-10)

The Book of Revelations rather graphically yet cryptically discusses two beasts that herald the Apocalypse. The first has been interpreted as Satan, the second as the Antichrist. The second "makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast." (13:1-10) The writer–generally thought to be the Apostle John–goes on to speak of the blasphemy and the war against the saints that the second beast will foment.

This is the time to note that one of the dominant characteristics of the Antichrist is that he attempts to place himself in Christ's place. Is it merely a "joke" when Trump utters, "I am the chosen one." If you call yourself a Christian, it cannot be. He has also said, "I play to people's fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can get excited by those who do…. People want to believe something is the biggest, greatest and most spectacular." Maybe that's good psychology, or maybe it sounds a lot like the temptation of Christ. Trump now says he's not the Messiah, but isn't that what you'd expect from a false apostle?

* Some theologians see Satan, Lucifer, and Beelzebub as separate demons; some see them as different expressions of the same evil, fallen angel.

9/6/19

Transit A Mixed Bag Backdoor Reflection on Refugee Crisis


Transit (2019)
Directed by Christian Petzold
Music Box Films, 102 minutes, Not-rated
In German with English subtitles
* * ½

Transit is a film that encourages reviewers to over intellectualize. But if one layers metaphors atop assumptions, do we miss the forest for the trees? Transit has been well received by pedantic critics but largely ignored by audiences, even those in art film venues. That’s because it because it’s a mess of a film–an interesting mess, but a mess all the same.

Director Christian Petzold based his film upon Anna Segher’s eponymous novel. Segher published her work in 1944 and set it in 1942. During World War II the Vichy government of France cooperated with the Nazis in rounding up known Jews and Jewish refugees passing through southern France. Petzold does something a bit different. He updates the timeframe to one that’s either the present or the near future and presents Western Europe as once again under authoritarian rule. This time there's a twist.

Petzold’s intent seems so obvious that it surprises me that so many reviewers missed the point. Transit centers on a German man, Georg (Franz Rogowski), and the attempt of he and his friends to get out of Europe before authorities apprehend them. They make it as far as Paris before Georg’s best friend is killed, but Georg escapes and travels on to Marseilles. He has managed to acquire the ID of a famed writer named Weidel and hopes to parlay the author’s reputation into passage to a safe nation such as Mexico or Venezuela before Weidel's death is discovered.

Several things should tip you off. First, Georg is German. If you follow the news you know that Germany has been one of the most generous nations in accepting refugees, but that its hospitality has led to a resurgence of the far right. Second, there is no mention of the religious or political backgrounds of those fleeing, hence no reason to assume Georg is Jewish; in fact, we infer that Georg's German ethnicity is the real issue. Third, the migrants seek refuge in nations that currently individuals emigrate from not to. In other words, Transit is a turn-the-tables commentary on contemporary immigration. How does today's refugee crisis look if we replace fleeing North Africans or Venezuelans, for example, and replace them with Germans? What would it be like if white Americans suddenly bolted to "freer" lands such as Mexico or Somalia?

Petzold oversteps by being too beholden to the film’s literary inspiration. This means that Georg must become smitten with Weidel’s widow, Marie (Paula Beer), who doesn’t know her husband is dead. She is both beautiful and mysterious, a woman who takes lovers and we don’t know if it’s because the couple is estranged, if they have an open relationship, if she’s amoral, or if she’s just not what she appears to be. In Marseilles she searches for her husband and keeps missing him in the various consulates she visits. (That is, of course, because Georg has his identity card and transit letters.) Yet she’s both attracted to Georg and is also having an affair with Richard (Godehard Giese), a doctor who is also trying to get out of France but won’t leave without Marie.

The port city of Marseilles is central to the plot. Transit hubs often operate in the gray zones of officialdom–think Michael Curtiz’s 1942 masterpiece Casablanca. Marseilles was like Casablanca both during World War II and today. It is France’s most multicultural city, but some view it as seedy and dangerous. In the film (and now) Marseilles is a point of entry for both legal and illegal immigrants. As in Casablanca, leaving requires securing various documents, letters, stamps, and approvals. The labyrinthine process of shuttling from one place to the next invites comparisons to Kafka, as well as stretched metaphors of migrants being suspended between Heaven and Hell. In Transit we observe a network of cafes, dodgy hotels, safe houses, and bars that cater to those awaiting transit or simply living underground. Who, if anyone, can be trusted?

Beer is superb as the enigmatic Marie. Her face is lovely, but it’s also a blank canvas that invites us to paint upon it what we wish to see. Rogoski is also riveting as Georg, who is lost in just about every way an individual can be lost. Nonetheless Transit ultimately works better as an intellectual exercise than as a film. Its narrative is so loose that it’s often like a series of snipped-thread vignettes. Though I seldom say this, Transit would have been better had it been more explicit in its intent.  

I’m not surprised that reviewers have read other things into it, but Transit is really about today’s refugee crisis. The sort of existential crises that occupied Kafka are not those that concern those on the razor’s edge of survival. If you will, the question that Petzold never asked is how many filmgoers have read Kafka. I have, but I doubt that’s typical. I’m not suggesting that Petzold should have dumbed down his film, but I do find it problematic when the main point is so muddle that reviewers instead pile metaphors atop assumptions.

Rob Weir


9/4/19

Small Towns: West Stockbridge, MA

West Stockbridge, MA: In the Shadow of Hustle and Bustle

Welcome to a new blog feature I'm calling Small Towns. There are lots of out-of-the-way places in New England and, frankly, in many cases that's a good thing. Sometimes, though, there are small jewels deserving of your attention.

Let's kick things off with West Stockbridge, Massachusetts. I mean West Stockbridge, not its famed first cousin Stockbridge, which lies 4.5 miles away. That one was founded (by whites) in 1739 and West Stockbridge 27 years later. Lots of New England towns have cardinal direction namesakes that formed for various reasons, chief among them religious disputes and the fact that older settlements ran out of desirable land in a generation or two.

You can forget the history lesson and enjoy West Stockbridge for its main modern virtue. It's near Berkshires tourist magnets such as the Tanglewood Music Center, the Kripalu School of Yoga, Berkshires mansions and all the other summer noise.  Stockbridge is where the masses head to see sites such as the Norman Rockwell Museum, Naumkeag, and Chesterwood. Traffic can be bad there at any time of the year because of the way the roads are laid out, but bottlenecks, clueless driving, and long waits to dine on the porch of the Red Lion Inn are as much a part of a Stockbridge summertime as mosquitoes and New York license plates. West Stockbridge is a place to take things at a less hectic pace. You might even spot Bay State license plates there.

West Stockbridge–population 1,360–invites one to laze about. It's the first exit off the Mass Pike if you're traveling east from New York State, and a place where we like to stop to shake off the road miles when driving home from visiting Pennsylvania relatives. It has a compact downtown that features the work of local artisans, and there seem to be quite a few of them. If you'd rather have a retro experience, Charles H. Baldwin and Sons is equal parts country store and time warp. Unless you're there around the noon hour–when you might have to wait–check out No. Six Depot, a coffee shop, bakery, and gallery space tricked out inside the old railroad station. We've never been there at dinnertime, but Rouge Restaurant gets raves from those who've dined there.

Our favorite activity is simply meandering. We duck into the craft shops, peruse book selections, aimlessly wander, caffeinate and repeat until the brain fog lifts enough to tackle the remaining 75-minute drive home. The Williams River makes a picturesque tumble through the downtown, spilling down from a large pond just above the old Shaker Mill. There's a used bookstore in that building and fossicking for used and remaindered tomes is one of the joys of the town. You can find some of the latter plus new volumes at Shaker Mill Books, which is next door to the old mill. 

We've heard good things about TurnPark Art Space, which is built by an old quarry but we're saving that for the next time we're homeward bound from a long drive. After all, there's just so much not-much-of-anything a person can do in a few hours!         

9/2/19

Carlos Ruiz Zafon Book 2 : The Angel's Game


The Angel’s Game (2008)
By Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Doubleday, 544 pages
* * * ½
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An old adage goes: be careful what you wish for, you might get it. The 10th Commandment admonishes against covetousness. More ominously, a considerable body of folklore tells of the eternal consequences of making a bargain with the Devil. (It’s numbers M200-299 in the Folk Motif Index if you’re keeping score.) From Adam and Eve eating from the Tree of Life to Faust, Paganini, and Robert Johnson, the message is clear: don’t meddle with the Devil.

The Angel’s Game is Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s (semi) prequel to The Shadow of the Wind. It is not up to the first book’s standard and, in fact, might even be viewed as a messy sometimes-trite piece of work. It is nonetheless a thrilling, often scary read. Like Shadow of the Wind, this one is set in Barcelona, though slightly earlier: the 1920s and 1930s, the eve of the Spanish Civil War. Parts of it take place in the Sempere bookshop, though they involve Daniel Sempere the elder, not his son. (This detail has confused some readers.) The Cemetery of Forgotten Books also factors into the story. Of these, only the latter is important rather than coincidental, which means you need not read Shadow of the Wind first.

Great Expectations is a clear model for Angel’s Game. David Martin, like Pip, grew up in poverty and suffered the torments of an abusive father. Despite this, David’s natural intelligence, love of literature, and hard work lead him to publisher and surrogate father Pedro Vidal, for whose newspaper he gains modest employment. After a time, David harbors a desire for more things of this world: money, reputation, and residency in a rambling empty mansion called Tower House. He gets two of three; he leaves Vidal for greater opportunity, but is soon pumping out sensationalist stories under a pseudonym that captivate the reading public. He has money and a house with a spooky past, but he’s not viewed as a serious writer. Soon, David is both bored and tired of being looked down upon; he’s not even good enough to court Cristina, the daughter of Vidal’s chauffeur.

David’s life takes a turn when a French publisher named Andreas Cortelli offers David an enormous sum to be his ghostwriter. Cortelli is a stimulating intellect, though an odd individual who wears an angel pin in his lapel and has a habit of consulting with David at irregular hours in unusual places. His commission is stranger still; Cortelli wants David to write a book that will unseat old religious systems and establish a new one. Moreover, it must be such a powerful piece of propaganda that the masses will follow it.

All of this is overlaid by a chilling discovery David makes about the previous owner of his house, the disruption of an adoring but forceful live-in intern, a series of murders for which David is thought a suspect, increasing demands from Cortelli, and the shock of discovering that Christina has married his old benefactor, Vidal. As in Great Expectations, not everyone is whom they appear to be, Cortelli primary among them.

It does not surprise me that not all readers liked (or could follow) this book. It is not clear what we are to make of all this. Is Zafon’s novel a Gothic tale of the supernatural? A murder mystery? Is it an exercise in Jungian psychology? A tale of David’s breakdown? A vampire tale? An overdose of magical realism? Or something more ominous? Zafon does not tell us what is real and what is imagined, thus any one of these readings has merit, though I think he tips his hand by calling Cortelli’s scandalous tract Lux Aeterna (“Eternal Light”).   

I would yield to those who say that Zafon jumped the shark in Angel’s Game. There are too many elements, too many subplots, too many improbable circumstances, and too much ambiguity for the center to hold. Nonetheless, memorable lines such as this enthralled me: “Poetry is written with tears, fiction with blood, and history with invisible ink.” Part of the book, including its conclusion, scared the bejesus out of me. All I am sure of is that this book within a book is also an allegory on Francoism. As for the scariest thing of all, I will end with a prolonged quote from a lecture delivered to David by Cortelli. Zafon wrote these words in 2008, but I’ll excuse you if you thought it was last week.

Nothing makes us believe more than fear, the uncertainty of being threatened. When we feel like victims, all our actions and beliefs are legitimized, however questionable they may be. Our opponents… stop sharing common ground with us and become our enemies…. The envy, greed, or resentment that motivates us becomes sanctified, because we tell ourselves we’re acting in self-defense. Evil, menace–those are always the preserve of each other. The first step for believing passionately is fear. Fear of losing our identity, our life, our status, or our beliefs. Fear is the gunpowder and hatred is the fuse. … It’s not enough that people should believe. They must believe what we want them to believe. And they must not question it or listen to the voice of whoever questions it.

This would be a disturbing yet enlightening book if only for these passages. I’ll leave it to you whether the rest makes sense, just as I will allow you to apply Zafon’s words in an analogical context of choice. I will say, though, that you should exercise great caution before striking a bargain for all you think you desire.

Rob Weir

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8/30/19

August 2019 Artist of the Month: Cameron Johnson


Cameron Johnson
Stack Your Stones

There are big voices and then there are BIG voices. Put Cameron Johnson in the second category. How big? Like John Gorka on steroids. Like a canon fired into a thunderstorm. If you don't already know this talented Arkansas musician, get thee to YouTube immediately and check him out.

First things first: When Johnson was first putting himself on the circuit he made a homespun promo CD titled Stack Your Stones that didn't actually have a song of that name among its tracks. It was mostly Johnson on guitars and vocals and his father, Bruce, on drums. This is a different project.

The song "Stack Your Stones" for which the new EP is named is a souped up version of "On My Own" from the promo. Somewhere along the line Johnson got connected with the right people. If you have one of the demos, you'll be struck immediately by how much more is going on in the new Stack Your Stones. The reworked title track opens with some vibes-like keys that set the table for horns, rock solid percussion, backing vocals and a big swell to the chorus. Check out how the horns drive the track, hollowing out for an echoic bridge, and then speeding us to the end like a semi making up for lost time. That's not to say Johnson is a man in a hurry. "Is There a Difference" is soulful and slow. The organ in this one suggests a bit of gospel influence, but the song itself is about disconnection: "Is there a difference between right and wrong/Cause I'm the last one standing when everyone's gone." Later he bemoans looking out the same window and seeing a different view. For all of that, Johnson prefers to take the back roads to explore the strength that comes from realizing others are on the same path. That message comes through clearly in "Let It Lie," which implores that letting go often reveals the ones standing beside you that can speed your journey home (however that is understood). Call it a big voice, tender heart kind of song.

"Somebody's Son" is another bring-the-noise arrangement. Johnson's vocal vibe is that of an arena rock singer still wearing his pork pie jazz hat. In the song he describes a downbeat character–whom we imagine as street person–as smelling "like yesterday's smoke." What a vivid image! But he also tells us that "He's easier to love/If you picture him as somebody's son." It's one of several stitched together bios that alert us that there are tales behind those on whom we'd slap quick labels. The EP is rounded out in a balancing way by "The Hunt," a piece of swampy Southern rock soaked in edgy mystery, clashing guitar work, and resonant vocals. For reasons you have to hear to understand, its abrupt ending is perfect for the song.

It's my understanding that Johnson intends to release another EP in a few months to bookend this one. If anything he does gets half the airplay it deserves, you won't need me to introduce you to Cameron Johnson.
Rob Weir

8/28/19

Loony 'Toons on Display in Rochester



The Art of Warner Brothers Cartoons
George Eastman International Museum of Photography
Rochester, NY
Through October 6, 2109


The George Eastman House in Rochester is a designated National Historic Landmark. It’s on the must-do list for visitors to Rochester. Eastman (1854-1932) was the founder of Eastman Kodak, once the powerhouse name in popular photography. Eastman made a fortune bringing roll film and inexpensive cameras to the masses and his home is well appointed, though aside from its main court, it’s not as grand as one might think for such a titan of industry. Beware if hunting and taxidermy offend you, as Eastman’s biggest vice was a fondness for shooting big game. The grounds are actually more lavish than the inside of the house. Speaking of interiors, Eastman was something of a mystery on the personal level. He never married, had no known girlfriends, and went into semi-mourning when his mother died in 1922. Such a sketchy biography has led some to speculate that he was gay, but there’s not much evidence for that; asexuality might be the safer bet. But, really, who cares?

If historic houses aren’t your pleasure, the grounds also contain a photography museum and archives. There are only small exhibits on the history of photography and the archives are not open for casual browsing. However, if you catch it right the changing exhibits are often amazing. That adjective is scarcely adequate for the current exhibit, The Art of Warner Brothers Cartoons. If you came of age during the years in which cartoons ruled Saturday morning television, this exhibit is a veritable trip back in time.
The Evolution of Bugs Bunny

I was never a fan of the Mickey Mouse or the sanitized Disney lineup; my ‘toon heroes were Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and the rest of Warner Brothers' Loony Tunes and Merrie Melodies crew: Elmer Fudd, Porky Pig, Road Runner, Sylvester and Tweety, the Tasmanian Devil, Yosemite Sam, Road Runner, Pepe Le Pew…. Loony Tunes–especially Bugs and Daffy–had an edge to them and a propensity for nastiness that today’s helicopter parents wouldn’t allow Little Buffy to watch. I loved it all: the anvil on Wile E. Coyote’s head, Elmer shooting himself instead of Bugs, Tweety handing Sylvester a bomb, and so on. Bugs was basically Groucho Marx with long ears and minus the hubris, and my love of puns definitely began with Warner Brothers. Bugs Bunny episodes came with titles such as “Hare-um Scare-um,” “Hare Force,” “Hot Cross Bunny,” “Hyde and Hare,” and “Now Hare This.” Just reading the episode names made me chortle my way through the gallery.



Did any of the violence and wordplay do me harm? Well… I’ve never wielded a weapon stronger than a pun. I also heard a lot of classical music and opera through Bugs Bunny, who did through animated cels what the Marx Brothers did on the big screen in Night at the Opera; that is, take a wrecking ball to pretense and make the music fun in the process. (Nearly all of the cartoons released as Merrie [sic] Melodies featured music.) The Eastman House show is loaded with funny clips, cels, storyboards, and drawings. Warner Brothers hired legendary talent that must have had a ball putting a bomb to bombast; among them: Tex Avery, Mel Blanc, Bob Clampett, Fritz Freleng, Chuck Jones, and Leon Schlesinger. If these names don’t ring any bells, your history of animation education is woefully incomplete.

The Art of Warner Brothers Cartoons reminds us that cleverness is more than surfaces and gadgetry. Today we have technological marvels of computer-aided design, special effects, and sophisticated animation programs, yet there are no Saturday morning cartoons. I’ve been impressed by contemporary animation, but little that I’ve seen matches the wit, magic, and edginess of Loony Tunes. The geniuses on display at the Eastman House wove their spell at 24 frames per second. Given that the average cartoon was about eight minutes long, it took more than 11,500 individually drawn frames for Bugs to outwit Elmer and take the piss out of opera, theater, and everything else under the sun.

That, my friends, is true artistry. And, as Porky Pig out it,  tha… tha… tha… that’s all folks.



Rob Weir
 

8/26/19

This Tender Land a Masterful Mash of Twain, Dickens, and Others

This Tender Land (September 3, 2019)
By William Kent Kruege
Atria/Simon and Schuster, 464 pages.
★★★★

Did you ever notice how works of fiction riff off of Huckleberry Finn? Aside from the obvious–Huckleberry Finn might be the elusive Great American novel–it's because the tale is part of Western culture's DNA. It goes back to Homer's Odyssey and its parameters probably predate him.

William Kent Kruege acknowledges his debt to Homer and Twain, as well as to Charles Dickens, Sinclair Lewis, and select slices of American history. He set out to write a Huck Finn-like yarn set during the 1930s but as all good writers do, he allowed his characters to take him to other places, hence there's a bit of Steinbeck in the mix as well. On the surface, This Tender Land is like a hybridized fruit grafted onto budwood, but it becomes something richer and more delicious.

Dickens is echoed early in This Tender Land. We enter the Lincoln Indian Training School, located along Minnesota's (fictional) Gilead River. The tyrannical husband/wife team of Clyde and Thelma Brickman run the school, the latter so nasty the children have dubbed her the "Black Witch." In theory Lincoln is a school for Native American children–tens of thousands of whom were ripped from their homes from the late 1800s into the mid-1900s and forced to assimilate to white ways–though orphaned and destitute white children also ended up at Lincoln. Think Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby and you're on the right track. Children are routinely sent to a solitary confinement, deprived of meals, beaten by cruel flunky DiMarco, forced to do hard labor, and some suffer even worse fates. The Black Witch is the bête noire of our narrator, Odie (as in Odysseus!) O'Banion, our 12-year-old narrator with talents for mischief, bad luck, storytelling, and playing the harmonica.

Odie is unlike his 16-year-old brother Albert, a mechanical genius, a crackerjack student, and a perceived goody two-shoes. Were it not for Albert and a kindly German groundskeeper named Herman Volz, Odie and his friend Moses Washington–a full-blooded Sioux whose tongue was cut out when he was very young–would suffer even harsher blows. Push comes to shove when a new Indian boy disappears and a tornado kills sympathetic teacher Cora Frost, thereby making her 6-year-old daughter Emmy an orphan that the Black Witch hopes to discipline and adopt.

The Twain part of the novel begins when Odie, Albert, Moses, and Emmy push a canoe into the Gilead with the vague notion of paddling to where it joins the Minnesota River, then onto its confluence with the Mississippi for a southward journey to St. Louis where, last they heard, the O'Banions' Aunt Julia lived. That's about a thousand miles and it's 1932, the cruelest year of the Great Depression. Although huge numbers of Americans are on the road–which provides some cover for peripatetic orphans–it's still a tall order for four minors. They have some money and papers from a safe, courtesy of some resourceful blackmail on Odie's part, but desperate times also means there are lots of equally desperate people on the road, including the Brickmans and their henchmen who are hell-bent on reclaiming Emmy. Huck and Jim faced all manner of perils as they floated down the Mississippi and so will our intrepid band of four. Like Huck, Odie is resourceful in amoral ways that sometimes make him a saint though he feels himself a bad luck sinner. Also like Huck, our "vagabonds," as Odie dubs them, encounter others with outwardly ambiguous morals: a farmer named Jack; a native man named Forrest; denizens of hobo camps; the Scofield family, who are Minnesota's answer to busted Okies (think Grapes of Wrath); and Aunt Julia. It is to Kruege's credit that he keeps us off balance, which is to say that many of the book's characters are as they appear to be, yet nothing at all as we expected.

Evil stalks the land, hand-in-hand with poverty. Who does one trust, if anyone? Can one linger in St. Paul, where Gertie Hellmann runs the Jewish equivalent of a soup mission? Do you cast your lot with Sister Eve and her traveling evangelism show? Kruege introduces spirituality into the book, but it too is malleable. Odie believes in the Tornado God, an Old Testament wrathful being, but Moses has a Native epiphany when passing through Mankato* and signs his "true" name: Amdacha (Broken in Pieces). Sister Eve is modeled on Aimee Semple McPherson and Sinclair Lewis' Elmer Gantry, but maybe she's neither of these. Emmy has "fits" that may or may not be life-changing visions. Perhaps Kruege is taking us down a vaguely pantheistic path. In Odie's later year recollections he remarks that there is no single road to redemption and compares time and the universe to a river that might be God. River, Wakan Tanka, Jehovah… all the same?

What an enjoyable book! It's the kind that deprives you of sleep because you care so much about its characters that you just need to know what happens to them. It helps that Kruege's prose is eloquent as well as compelling. To introduce a small critique, the book's concluding chapters and postscript feel forced and overly tidy in the way that many rolling end-of-movie codas feel abrupt. Some might also read the book's religious ideals as New Age esotericism. (I'm still musing over that.) But the takeaway point is that in the hands of a skilled writer, The Odyssey is truly a timeless tale.

Rob Weir

* Mankato was the site of the largest single-day execution in American history. Thirty-eight Sioux were hanged on Christmas Day in 1862, allegedly for taking part in the Dakota War Sioux uprising. Many of them likely had no part in the war. The president refused to pardon them. His name was Abraham Lincoln!
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