Sunday, November 29, 2009

Mental Floss History of the World by Erik Sass and Steve Wiegand


They say never to judge a book by it's cover but I have to confesss that I often do.This book is one of those. It was sitting facing out and staring at me like a Monty Python's Flying Circus poster. And the words "History of the World" immediately evoked images of the Mel Brooks' film, so I thought, "What's not to like?"

This edition is the 2009 soft covered release of the 2008 book of the same name. It has 2 added chapters. The book is arranged chronologically and is literally the type of book you can just pick up and open to any page.

Filled with facts the book is not one dimensional. It is ordered in such a way that the average reader will come away with an understanding of where are now, as compared to say, Ben Hur. Or the beginning of using copper.(The Copper Age)By the way, did you know the Copper Age began in the area which is now Wisconsin and Michigan? I didn't.

The book even touches upon Human Rights as they have evolved through history. Everything here is so readable that it just may turn you into a history buff!

Indexed very simply this is a book that the reader can keep close at hand for quick checks on things like who were the Estrucans? Popes and Religion, all are included. Space Race? No problem. This is a highly entertaining read of the History of the World. And the cover is great!

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Timeless Quality of Glass

Glass comes in all shapes, sizes and colors. It graces the windows of Cathedrals in beautiful depictions of Religous events. It comes in bottles that house your favorite beverage. It serves as a window to the world around us. It is also art.

Thousands of peolpe collect bottles, I am one. I prefer the medicine bottles of the 1800's and the earlier 20th century soda pop bottles with the names embossed in the glass itself. I have also been fascinated with "beach glass" since my early childhood when I would pick up small pieces at Riis Park and Rockaway Beach in New York.

Something about the irregular shapes, smoothed edges and varied thicknesses has always seized my imagination. Where did they come from, what were they, how did they get here?

And so I was really thrilled to receive some "beach glass" from my freinds at Garden Lust Journal (http://mendogardens.blogspot.com) They are so much more than just pieces of glass to me. They are a symbol of something durable- something lost and then found again.

The glass is making it's way through the house- first it was on the dining room table, where I do alot of reading. Then they went to the TV room where I do alot of movie watching. Now they are on the piano, adding grace and charm to an already warm room. They are seeking their proper place in my home. And like the tides that washed them ashore thousands of miles from me- the tides of fate will decide where they will permanently reside.

But these faded and smooth colored pieces of glass will always be close at hand- a symbol of endurance- an affirmation of a freindship that so long ago drifted away on a tide, only to be returned when ready. I am so glad to have them.

Movie Review:The Man Who Would Be King with Sean Connery and Michael Caine


In 1975 John Huston released his epic version of a 15 page short story by Rudyard Kipling and 2 Geniuses collided. The film is long, about 2 and 1/2 hours, but when it is over you are left longing for more.

Set against the backdrop of India during the late 1800's the scenery and costuming are perfect. The opening scene alone, which is a smorgasbord of an Indian market place in Calcutta, is as accurate today as it was then.

The film opens in Kiplings office at the Northern Star, where he is a correspondent.(Kipling is played by Christopher Plummer) The rest of the movie is a flashback told through the eyes of Peachy Carnahan (played by Michael Caine.)

From the theft of Rudyard Kiplings watch by Peachy Carnahan in a Calcutta train station, a chain of events ensues locking the three main characters in a saga that will take "three summers and a thousand years" to come to a conlusion. Their relationship is grounded in the fact that they are both Masons and bound to one another by this connection. The implications of this are far reaching and though Kipling is only in the movie at the beginning and at the end, he is with you through the entire story in spirit. This is Direction and Screenwriting at it's best!

Character development is the key to writing a screenplay. More so when the entire screenplay comes from a short story with so little clue as to who these guys really are. Huston delivers on that score, serving up 2 of the most cagy and uncanny anti-heroes to ever cross a screen.

The 2 principal characters, Peachy Carnahan and Danny Dravot(played by Connery)are so accessible, so familar, and grow so close to you, that you want them to reach their goal.

The plot of course, centers on Peachy and Danny. They are intent on going through the Kyber Pass disguised as Hindus, Caine as a trader and Connery as a dumb Priest.(Wait until you see Connery doing a Whirling Dervish as he tells fotunes in a language of his own device, with Caine translating.)

The journey across the mountains and through an avalanche is awe inspiring. They face death more than once, singing and rejoicing in the events that have lead them to their fruitless ends. But another event saves them and they find themselves in what is today the mountains of Northern Afghanistan, past the Hindu Kush, where they intend on establishing themselves as Kings.

Meeting the local Chieftains they vow to help conquer all their enemies. They only wish to take some "small souvenirs" as a reward. But somewhere along the way, being King becomes attractive to Connery and they push on past their original intent. This leads to disaster and also to one of the most noble scenes on film as Connery pays the ultimate price for having lost sight of himself.

Of special interest is the character Roxanne, who is played by Caines wife Shakira. She literally fell into the role at dinner one night when Huston was discussing who they could cast. She is one of the events that trip our heroes up as they struggle onward towards their goal of becoming Kings.

An extraordinary work, this film should not be missed. To make a 2-1/2 hour epic from a 15 page short story takes some talent and imagination. This movie has both in abundance.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving Day Reflection

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone! This is a photo I took when I was 12 years old at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1966. The balloon is Bullwinkle the Moose of "Rocky and Bullwinkle" fame.

I went to meet my Uncle Irving that day and watch the parade. It was the first time that I went to see it. I remember the joy on his face when the balloons went by,how he lit up as the marching bands passed. And when Santa came by at the end of the Parade, my Uncle glowed! This was always amazing to me because he was Jewish to the core.

Thanksgiving was always a time when he would come over and have dinner with us. He lived alone in Manhattan and really had nowhere to go. He was always at our house anyway. He was my refuge and I loved him for it, but on holidays we were his refuge.

Here he is, in white shirt and tie,(he even went to the beach like that. We would get lockers at Curley's on the boardwalk at Rockaway so he could change clothes and shower.) My Mom is standing and ready to serve dinner. I am in the foreground and my brother Mark is to the left of me. The turkey is ready and my Dad took the picture. My Dad always did the turkey and the stuffing, which he loaded with pepper. Then he would do the carving and we would eat.

The years have passed quickly and sometimes all that remains are the photos and memories. So as I give Thanks today I will be remembering the words of Paul Simon in "Old Friends/Bookends."

"Time it was, and what a time it was, it was a time.
A time of innocence, a time of confidence.
Long ago, it must be, I have a photograph.
Preserve your memories, they're all that's left you."

And it's true, life passes quickly, we wind up looking at old photographs even as new ones are being taken. And someday someone will look back at us and remember. And that's a good reason to give Thanks.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Making of Some Like It Hot by Tony Curtis with Mark Vieira


This is a delightful book. "Some Like It Hot" has long been a favorite of mine and to get a glimpse behind the scenes through the eyes of one of the principal actors is a treat!

Mr. Curtis spares nothing in his recollections of the filming of one of Hollywood's best loved masterpieces. There is a little bit of "kiss and tell" here, but not too much. The book is more a narrative of what it was like working with the creative genius of Billy Wilder.

The book is filled with anecdotes and tidbits of information about not only the movie but Hollywood itself. The rift between George Raft, who plays one of the gangsters, and Edward G. Robinson is explored. This goes back to the filming of "Manpower" with Robinson and Raft as Linesmen in love with the same woman, Marlene Dietrich. In reality they were both smitten with her and came to blows on the set. There was a Life photographer there who got it on film. Due to this , Robinson turned down the part to play opposite Raft in "Some Like It Hot."

The parts of the book that are the most entertaining involve Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon learning how to dress and act like women. The big surprise for Mr. Curtis was how well Jack Lemmon adapted to the role. He revelled in it!

The creative process is explored extensively. Billy Wilder never made a film with a complete script. He would film what he had and then rewrite or revise as necessary. This gives his films the spontaneity they are known for.

Filled with photographs from the studio and some of the authors own collection this book is a great read for holiday travel. The color photos are a real treat as the movie was shot in black and white.

The freindship between Marilyn Monroe and Tony Curtis is beautifully expressed. This will be of interest to all Monroe fans. He has a unique ability to let you peek inside without being sleezy. He obviously recognizes Marilyn Monroes faults but also gives her credit for the complex and sensitive person she was.

Originally I picked this off the shelf as a quick selfish read. It turned out to be so much more than that. I'm glad I took the time to look behind the magic of the movie and see how it was accomplished.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Fordlandia by Greg Grandin


The remarkable thing about this book is the way in which the author has approached such an expansive and multi faceted subject. And that’s just in reference to Henry Ford as a person! Add to this already complex individual some very radical ideas concerning Industry and you can easily get lost!

But Mr. Grandin doesn’t get lost at all. He leads the reader on a carefully laid out journey from the Ford plant in Michigan to the jungles of Brazil.

In the 1920’s, as America prospered, teetering towards the Great Depression, Henry Ford released his newest creation, the Model “A” Ford. With it's varied colors and other added features it was quite a departure from the earlier Model “T”. Available to almost every American in those days of easy credit it became a mainstay of the newly emerging road trips that ever more Americans were discovering.

Fords factory techniques of mass production and his progressive wage of $5 a day were legendary. The mass production allowed for greater profit for the owner and greater wages for the working man.

But this all came with a price. Time management experts followed the worker, recording his every move, constantly looking to increase productivity and profits.

At this same time Mr. Ford was privately engaged in many pursuits. From soybeans as a “do all” product encompassing plastics, food, fibers and a myriad of liquid solvents, to lobbying for new regional currencies based on hydro electric outputs, Mr. Ford was a very busy, thinking man. And he expected as much from his employees as well.

He was also engaged in newspaper publishing with his own, decidedly Anti-Semitic newspaper.

But his real passion was to create a rubber producing state in the Brazilian rain forests. With a need for tires on his automobiles he was intent on carving out an empire in the jungle. He envisioned bringing American middle class life to the indigenous people of Brazil. This was a fantastic undertaking,fraught with peril.

He established “Fordlandia”, as it came to be known, along the banks of the Tapajos River, a tributary of the Amazon River which flows to the Atlantic Ocean. He was intent on cutting out the middle man and again, increasing profits. The way things turned out, or didn’t, make for quite a read!

How do you teach an indigenous people factory style rules? And how do you justify trying to regulate the lives of these people? Is their compliance really voluntary, or is it self imposed slavery? Great questions that are all posed within this book.

There are some interesting tid bits as well. For instance,the first "in flight movie" was shown on a Ford Tri Motor Airplane. It was a Harold Lloyd comedy about the last horse drawn streetcar in New York City.

That the author manages to take the reader on such a complex trip through the jungles of the Amazon, as well as the corporate boardrooms of Detroit, in such a coherent manner is a tribute to his ability as a writer.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Fork and The Spoon


They weren't always like this. I remember them in black and white from the fifties when they were just my Favorite Aunt Gloria and my soon to be Uncle Bobby. They have changed a little over the years, but not too much. The picture above was taken on Halloween aboard the Norwegian Jewel. They went on a cruise to celebrate a landmark birthday, they are both the same age.

They are still as much fun and as playful as when they were young. I'm 15 years younger, but I feel 20 years older than them. What keeps them laughing and roaming around while I am drying up?

I look at the pictures through the years and they are always there- big smiles- not phony ones- real smiles. You can see that they enjoy the things they do. And part of that has to be that they enjoy one another.

These are the same two newlyweds who used to take me to Breezy Point when I was a kid. This is the same Aunt Gloria that took me fishing in Sheepshead Bay so many years ago.

I lost them for awhile- 25 years to be exact. Don't know why, that happens in so many families. People drift in and out of one anothers' lives. Sometimes there is a perceived slight or an argument. But that's not the case here.

They were at my wedding in 1986. He was wearing his Captain Kangaroo jacket and she wore a striped blouse with a white skirt. But shortly after that we disappeared from one anothers radar.

And then, just as suddenly,25years had passed and we were in touch again and all those years just melted away. Bobby is still the laid back person he was then and Gloria can still make me laugh just by saying hello.

So here's to the Fork and the Spoon! Thanks for all the laughter and the photos and the stories that you have passed on to me through the years.

And I think I just realized why they are so special to me- they aren't afraid to be themselves. That's the secret! They aren't afraid to be The Fork and The Spoon.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Decoding "The Lost Symbol" by Simon Cox


This book was a surprise. And a pleasant one at that. I expected it to be a book dedicated to debunking any misinformation found in Dan Browns new book "The Lost Symbol". But it's not that at all.

It is, instead, a pleasant companion to have while reading the other. My wife has the Dan Brown book and is looking forward to reading it. We will invariably end up discussing some of the history it refers to. She will also have questions on the background of the Masonic stuff. Usually she asks me and I tell her what I know on the subject or just google it. Now I can just peek at my little book and she will think I'm a genius!(Thanks Mr. Cox!)

The book is carefully researched and contains some illustrations, which makes for a really interesting read all on it's own- even without reading the Dan Brown novel. If you have any interest in the history of the Masonic Lodges and the symbolisms contained in our Great Seal of the United States, this book will be of great interest to you as an introduction to those topics.

I must stress, again, that the book is NOT a vehicle to debunk anything in Dan Browns new novel. If anything, I think it will enhance the readers experience should they choose to utilize it. A very coherent work by an accomplished Egyptologist.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Laughing Gorilla by Robert Graysmith


This is a sprawling account of America's first transcontinental serial killer,Slipton Fell. Raised by parents engaged in the Funeral business he learns to do autopsies and has an obsession with death. A huge man with large hands he is quickly dubbed "The Laughing Gorilla" due to the insane laugh he emits as he leaves his crime scenes.

This book is also the story of the Police Detective in San Francisco, Captain Charles Dullea, who pursues the Gorilla Man for almost a decade. While trying to solve the case he is also faced with cleaning up a very corrupt Police Department. To complicate matters the Public Defenders Office has become a clearing house for criminals and crime. A string of safecracking heists is finally solved only to discover that the ring is lead by a Policeman. He gets his cohorts from the Public Defenders office!

When I refer to the book as sprawling I mean that the author takes you from the initial crimes in San Francisco in 1926, to the wilderness of Canada and the interior of the United States as we follow the trail of the killer. Which murders are the work of the Gorilla Man and which are copy cat killings? In the days before forensic science had reached it's current state, this was no easy question.

The book is loaded with characters, some who rival even the most imaginative creations of fiction. There is Police Chief Quinn with his armored automobile complete with a machine gun mount; there is the "Flying Squad", an elite motorcycle unit used to battle the criminal gangs along the waterfront; there are Madams and Longshoreman. They are all locked in a struggle to survive the daily life along the San Francisco waterfront of the 1920's through 30's.

While Captain Dullea battles his own demons within the Department he never loses sight of the Gorilla Man. He let him slip away once and has never forgotten it. When the Gorilla Man returns to San Francisco after an absence of almost 10 years, Dullea is determined to bring this monster to justice.

A must read for lovers of San Francisco and its' colorful history. The authors descriptions of the wharves and the Embarcadero,the Clock Tower and the daily grind of San Francisco all ring true. Set against the backdrop of the Golden Gate Bridge being built, you get a sense of a city emerging from it's past and building to a future.

Written by Robert Graysmith, the man who idenitified the infamous "Zodiac Killer",this book is a product of the same painstaking research skills which aided in cracking that case.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Moby Dick by Herman Melville


Today is the 158th Anniversary of Moby Dick by Herman Melville. This astonishing book was unappreciated when it was first released, but over time has become recognized as the true classic it is.

The story of Ishmael, the novice whaler, and his journey through an immoral and indifferent world has never lost it's relevancy or it's bite. We still live in a world of Ahabs chasing personifications of Evil, mostly to the detriment of the innocent.

The questions raised within this book are timeless and universal. Who has the right to Vengeance? Is it the provenance of the man afflicted by Evil? Or does Vengeance truly belong to a Power larger than ourselves?

Truly a literary gem this book is still worth the time it takes to read it. From the naming of Ishmael as the principal character, to the Resurrection of the coffin after the Apocalyptic battle between Ahab and the Whale, the book is filled with references to Scripture and the lessons within.

Happy Birthday to Moby Dick and thanks to Herman Melville for this ever relevant saga of Good vs Evil.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Happy Veterans Day



To all who serve, and to those who have served, Happy Veterans Day! Whether at Peace or in times of War, your service is not forgotten nor diminished.

And as a fellow Veteran- I salute you.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Great Blackout-1965

I was 11 years old and my Mom was getting dinner ready at about 5:25 when the radio station (WABC- 770 AM) went dead for a minute and then came back on. There was a "blackout" of all electrical power on the entire Eastern Seaboard!

Coming only 2 years after JFK's assassination and amid the height of the Cold War no one knew what was really happening. The trains stopped running, traffic signals ceased and traffic became one big gridlock.

We waited and waited for our lights to go out too, but nothing happened! There was an underground transformer beneath Avenue R between East 13th and 14th Streets. This was what kept us in lights. I don't really understand how it worked but it did.

My Dad got home about 7:30 or 8 PM. I'm not sure if he drove or walked. But after he had eaten we took a stroll through the neighborhood. There were policeman directing traffic with flashlights and Auxilary Policeman assisiting where needed. There was no crime, no looting, no panic.

It was the first time I had ever seen the surrounding neighborhood plunged into darkness and it reminded me of all the stories my Mom told about the Blackouts and Air Raid Drills during World War Two.

The neighbors in our apartment building had their doors all opened to the hallway and everyone was wandering from apartment to apartment. There was concern, but no fear. Mr. and Mrs. Gold, who had fled Nazi Germany, went around the building with John, the German Superintendant and his wife Katie, seeing to it that all the elderly were okay. This was a beautiful thing as John had been a German soldier during the war. And now he and his wife were looking after a building full of Jews.

The whole event was indicative of the times. We had not yet been split asunder by the events of Vietnam, which had just started heating up with the draft. We were a couple of years away from the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. Civility still reigned to some extent.

I often look back to that night. The fear, the suspicions, the uncertainty never hit me. I was safe with my family and my stomach was full. Hell, we even had lights!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Movie Review- Vantage Point with Forest Whitaker, Dennis Quaid and William Hurt


This movie is not unique in it's plot,which involves the assassination of the President of the United States while at a Summit in Spain, the thing that makes this movie different is in the direction. The story is laid out in reverse from about 7 different perspectives. And as each one is revealed you get a little closer to the whole truth.

Very action packed, which is usually not my thing, the movie keeps you looking for that one clue, which you know is there. The direction actually pushes you to try and solve the crime. You feel involved.

An outstanding performance by Forest Whitaker. He plays the roll of the guy who gets it all on film but has no clue as to what he is filming. Nonetheless, what happens to him in the space of less than 20 minutes will change his life and alter his priorities forever.

Great film, a little different for me but glad I watched it.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

God Sleeps In Rwanda by Joseph Sebarenzi with Laura Ann Mullane


How did all the troubles start in Rwanda? We all see and hear the stories of the Genocide that took place there- but how and why did it begin? And what is it really like to have experienced such an ordeal? How do you come to terms with it? Is there a reason to go on living in the face of such an experience? These are some of the questions I had when I started to read this book. And you know what? Mr. Sebarenzi answers them all in a beautifully arranged narrative of his own experiences.

Born into a Tutsi family in Rwanda Mr. Sebarenzi is sent across Lake Kivu to get an education in the city of Idjwi. His father has forseen the coming ethnic violence and wants his 3rd eldest son to go in order that someone from the family will survive. He hopes that armed with an education his son can someday work for change. This was a fortuitous decision.

Rwanda is a small country nestled beside the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda. The whole area was once under French and Belgium control. When the end of colonization came the people were basically unprepared for self rule. The conflict between Tutsi and Hutu dates back to about 1959 and the end of colonial rule.

Throughout the uprising of the Tutsi and Hutu tribes the author is constantly questioning why and how such things happen. He meets and marries a woman and they flee, he to Canada and she and their children to Uganda.

When the war ends he elects to return home with his wife and 2 children. He wants to see what has become of his native land and if there is anything he can do to help rebuild it.

When he returns he finds the Tutsi in control and the tables turned on the Hutus. But rather than rejoice at this victory he questions how people can justify these acts. He wonders how they can forgive and move on. When he meets the former Mayor of his village, a Hutu, now imprisoned, and realizes this man was responsible for the murder of his Mother, Father and most of his brothers and sisters, he is puzzled by his own lack of hatred. Instead of wanting revenge he feels sorry for him.

He now sees that the Hutus are in the same position as the Tutsi were and tries to understand how hatred breeds hatred in a never ending cycle. He recites the following story from an old Cherokee legend;

An old man was explaining to his grandson the nature of good and evil. "My son," he said, "there is a fight between two wolves inside us all. One is Evil. It is anger,envy, jealousy,greed, arrogance, self pity, resentment,inferiority, false pride and ego. The other is Good. It is joy, peace, faith,love, hope, humility,empathy, genorosity, truth, compassion and faith."

The grandson looked at his grandfather with fear in his eyes and asked, "Which wolf wins?"

The grandfather answers, "The one you feed."

With this valuable lesson he becomes active in church and then in politics. He eventually rises to the elected post of Speaker of Parliament. He works for change and reconciliation in his war ravaged homeland.

This book is a wake up call. It is an alert to extremism. Any extremism. The lesson here is that just because your side has the might it doesn't have the right. Those come from somewhere higher.

An enlightening read on a subject that gets too little attention, I can strongly recommend this book. And one final word, Mr. Sebarenzi's father was right- his third son lived to get an education and work for change. And that is a tribute to his father as well as to Mr. Sebarenzi.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Movie Review- American Violet with Alfre Woodward and Charles Dutton


This is a true story. It happens in every major city across America. The War on Drugs creates such enormous profits for the Government Agencies tasked with upholding the drug laws that Justice is often left far behind.

A single working Mom, who lives in the Projects, is caught up in a drug sweep. She is completely innocent. Represented by a Public Defender she tries to fight the charges. If convicted at trial she faces 16-25 years behind bars for a crime she did not commit. So she remains in jail, unable to post a $70,000 bond. She is offered a plea bargain, prison time suspended, but she has to fight the charges as even accepting the plea bargain will make her a Felon. This would result in her losing her Housing Subsidy, Food Stamps, Medical Care and leave her and her children homeless.

Between the Prosecutor and the Public Defender this woman is just a statistic. If she pleads guilty the State makes their quota and gets more Federal money to fight the War On Drugs. If she beats the charges the prosecutor looks bad. (Hence the empty offer of the plea bargain.) Money and Politics are at stake here- and when that happens Justice is denied.

Strong performances by all. Alfre Woodward as the Mother of the accused and also Charles Dutton as the Preacher are exceptional. With strong direction the movie makes it's point about Justice in America today.