Thursday, May 27, 2021

Celebrating 51 years together

 We made our first foray for crabs this year, heading to the old original, Cantler's outside Annapolis. We arrived at opening time on Sunday, 11:00 A.M., and managed to get seated on the deck. Because they assigned a waitress who hadn't arrived yet, they ran out of crabs before we could order. Crabs apparently are unpredictable--also fewer--this year. There are fewer mature blue crabs and more females, so the future looks better. 

Vanessa and I are the only true hard-crab crackers in the group so we did order other stuff. First, though, we put in for steamers, spiced shrimp, and calamari--the last for Dave, whose birthday it was Sunday. Everything was good, including the crabcakes and my soft-shell crab stuffed with rockfish (a switch on the more frequently found rockfish stuffed with crabmeat.

Then our waitress--who was a good sort even if her late arrival caused us to miss the opening crab order--came by to advise that more crabs had arrived. It seems she wasn't the only late arrival. So Vaness and I enjoyed sharing a half-dozen big ones. They were great. The sun was shining, the view of the arm of the Severn Cantler's borders was delightful, and we hadn't had to wait in a line. It was a feast we hadn't exactly planned.

Monday night Eileen and I headed to Le Diplomate for our anniversary dinner. It's 51 years and we've known each other for 55. It rained but Le Dip has wooden chambers along the street, complete with built-in heaters that they can turn on from inside the restaurant. As always, the service was superb--which is not usual in these parts. 

It was a cold wet day so Eileen ordered the one dish designed for those conditions: French onion soup, a bistro classic, and Le Dip is nothing if not a classic bistro. I had tuna carpaccio, not such a classic but excellent all the same.

It's always satisfying when Eileen can get steak frites grilled well-done. I had the special--dorade en papillote. Creme brulee to conclude for E; profiteroles for me. Possibly because of the rain, we even found a nearby legal parking space. 

This was a week for dining out, something we really don't do as often as we have this week.Last night, Wednesday, we weren't so lucky, joining a friend at La Piquette on Macomb St. We got there on time and had moved our table from outside to inside, and managed to get a real table, not a high one. There had been a storm at 5:30--our reservation was for 6:30.

Service was slow from the gitgo. There was a large party--8 or 10--across the way from our table. First course didn't take too long. I saw them hustling to get main courses served for the large party. It had been a while and we got assurances but nothing happened. By the time I spoke to the manager, since no one else had helped, we then were finally served. 

I had hoped we might finish by the predicted time of the next storm: around 8. It was not to be. I was partly responsible having order a dessert to share. The storm arrived with a vengeance. I ended up running around the corner--the car was pretty close--and somehow we made it home without being struck by lightning. Eileen ordered the one excellent dish--a fricassee of wild mushrooms.

We're dining at home, tonight and over the weekend.

Monday, May 10, 2021

It Was Never Likely That Roth Would Go Quietly

Just over one month ago, we surveyed the crowded landscape of Philip Roth biographies. I mentioned that Claudia Roth Pierpont (no relation) produced a fine literary biography a year or so ago, and that Professor Ira Nadel brought out a full-fledged biography in March. Then Benjamin Taylor, an old friend of Roth's, published his recollections of their friendship, and lastly and most significantly, Blake Bailey, Roth's ultimate authorized biographer--the first was fired by Roth and Nadel, always unauthorized, was sued by Roth--produced a 900-page volume. I bought Nadel's book because standing alone then in the bookstore, I assumed it was the major bio. It's not well-written.

Bailey's bio received excellent reviews from almost every critic until the New Republic published an attack predicated on accusations that Bailey, when teaching high school in New Orleans some years ago, had groomed female students to become sex partners when they reached the age of 18, and then looked them up. W. W. Norton, Bailey's publisher, proceeded to halt further printings and stop flogging the book. Bailey had made the rounds of major TV programs where authors are interviewed--I caught him on MSNBC's Morning Joe--and was now instantly persona non grata, the latest casualty of the cancel culture.

This morning Morning Joe had a discussion of the cause celebre, and it was finally acknowledged after one panelist claimed that Bailey's book was still readily available, that, in reality, Amazon had dropped it and the Kindle edition was no longer available. There was a good back-and-forth among a variety of panelists--Katty Kay of BBC, Ron Charles, book critic for the Washington Post, Matt Bai, a freelance journalist, and Judith Shulevitz, who authored the New Republic piece.

Not that a consensus ever emerged that resolves these kinds of conflicts, but the major part of the group seemed to coalesce on a conclusion that a publisher need not continue to promote a book by an author it no longer feels it can endorse but that in this instance, Norton ran away from Bailey before there had been any assessment of the evidence expected to be forthcoming from his accusers. 

It's not censorship because this is not an interdict imposed by the government. It reminded me of how the Democrats in the Senate did everything possible to force Al Franken to resign his Senate seat after a woman accused him years later of fondling her back when he was a comedian. Worse yet, there were allegations at the time that she was an operative of a right-wing group that specialized in setting up liberal political figures.Lastly, the Dems refused to wait for the results of the investigation that Franken had gone along with requesting.

It always seemed to reek of overreach and the traditional unwillingness of Democratic national administrations or Congressional Democrats to stand behind any of their members facing such accusations. The Republicans never surrender and the Trump persistence in denying the truth and the failed impeachment convictions attest to their steadforthness. Sen. Kirsten Gillebrand of New York was the leading voice demanding Franken's resignation. Franken now regrets that he folded.

Sentence first, trial later, as the Red Queen in Through the Looking-Glass proclaimed. Roth himself, now safely interred, was the target of renewed attacks for allegedly being a misogynist in his life and his fiction. Granted, positive female characters in Roth are few and far between. But I found it worth noting that one leading figure in one of his late short novels, Jamie Logan in Exit Ghost (2007), comes across as a strong woman who dominates her weak husband and is the object of Roth alter ego Nathan Zuckerman's ardor, admiring that quality. Unlike Lucy Nelson and Martha Regenhart in Roth's first two novels (Brenda Patimkin in Goodbye, Columbus, which is regarded as a novella rather than his first novel, also emerges as a less-than-positive character, as she joins Daisy Buchanan from The Great Gatsby as one of the "careless people" who leave others to pick up the pieces. in this case, a wrecked courtship), Jamie is depicted as strong but not controlling.

I've started reading the Bailey book, Philip Roth: The Biography. I haven't gotten all that far along but I can say that it is very well-written, and takes advantage of the exclusive access Roth gave Bailey to his papers, archives, and other materials. I'm not going to trash it and I intend to savor it.

Monday, April 5, 2021

A Grand Performance--Redux

 I now have a car with Sirius XML radio so I can listen to its Met Opera channel. Eventually I will access a schedule but right now, the peripatetic listening has been enjoyable. Yesterday, I tuned in just as a memorable performance from 1973 was beginning: Joan Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti in Donizetti's La Fille du Regiment. The performance was their only joint broadcast appearance.

We had attended a performance of this production the previous season when it premiered. It was one of the greatest. Although there have been subsequent productions of La Fille, and I have seen some of them, including a nice one at Santa Fe, it probably should be performed only when a truly star cast is available. It is a vehicle for singers like Sutherland and Pavarotti. Sutherland was the established star at that time but had never appeared in a comic opera. Pavarotti was beginning his stellar career.

It was always encouraging to me that Sutherland had apparently wanted someone to appear with her who could perform at her standard. Unlike some earlier famous sopranos, she wanted someone to make the performance truly grand rather than merely insist that she be the solo star. Pavarotti became known as the King of the High C's based on this production. In the first act he has an aria that has 10 of them. No one then singing was able to carry that off in the style he did.

For a soprano who was somewhat ungainly, Sutherland also was superb. She always made the most challenging coloratura and trilling sound easy, and that was also true in her opening aria. As always, her husband Richard Bonynge conducted; he rarely inspired either positive or negative criticism--no one mistook him for any of the great maestri of the day, including the young James Levine, but he did not attract attention.

The Met provided two superb supporting singers: Bass-baritone Fernando Corena was the master of buffo roles and he brightened the performance as Sergeant Sulpice; Regina Resnik was a wonderful actress as well as singer and added to the show as the Marquess who wants to take Marie (Sutherland) away from the military. Among the comprimari was one of the Met's marvels: Andrea Velis, who sang probably close to 100 parts.

Back when we were in New York and subscribed, this was what the Met was at its greatest. The most outstanding singers who shone even in operas that were essentially showpieces for the stars and little more. Yet that was definitely enough to make it a truly memorable evening, and the performance played yesterday sounded equally strong. Pavarotti became a cultural phenomenon and started to decline a bit toward the end of his career. Sutherland, if my memory holds, was always at the top of her form and as noted, never did there seem to be a soprano then who made this most demanding singing look routine.

So this brought back lots of wonderful memories. They sounded every bit as fine as I had remembered. The previous day, I had heard part of Brunnhilde's singing the finale of Goetterdaemerung sung by no less than Birgit Nilsson. Yet another glimpse of my golden age of singing heard at the Met. 

Friday, April 2, 2021

Engaging the Wrath of Roth

 I've found Philip Roth to be a rewarding writer to enjoy for as long as I've read his books. I began with Goodbye, Columbus, his first published novella and compilation of (mostly) previously-published stories. It's certainly appropriate that the first person who recommended him to me was a friend of mine from Hebrew school! Reading Roth back then--in the late 1950s--was certainly edgy in terms of the Jewish establishment in the U.S., which made it all the more appealing. Roth became the classic writer who included all sorts of intensely Jewish matters, cultural rather than religious, but which the usually pompous leadership aimed to prevent exposure to the outside world: the goyim.

Not only was his prose edgy but supremely funny. And his confidence  of the Jewish world--the Newark where he grew up, in particular--was spot on, without defense or euphemism. I followed Roth's long literary career largely through his novels and occasional writings about writing. His first novel, Letting Go, which was generally regarded as his first only if Goodbye, Columbus was a novella, which most readers instead described as a novel, was slightly disappointing, as second novels often are. It was long and mostly tracked his miserable first marriage.

In his next novel, When She Was Good, he ventured outside the Jewish world for the first time. Although it was a perfectly adequate novel, it lacked the knowing confidence of his writing about Jews. He also depicted a leading character who was a cold and mostly unsympathetic woman. Rather than in his earlier work, it was this portrayal that led to the initial charges that he was a misogynist. No one argued that he was anti-Christian, because he was far from the first to write critical fiction about the dominant group in mid-century American society.

Roth's greatest popular success and scandalous accomplishment was Portnoy's Complaint, in which he dove into the sexual openness of the 1960s to convey a "nice Jewish boy" with a background similar to his own who enjoyed masturbatory as well as kinky sex with a variety of non-Jewish female partners. It was the talk of New York from the first appearance of a long section in The New Yorker, and it both brought Roth fame and riches, or, in some circles, infamy. He was at the top of his game, dealing with sex and the coming of age of his prototypical "nice Jewish boy."

He wrote about 27 more books after that, and I read quite a few of them. I tended to pass on the ones that declared themselves autobiographical or semiautobiographical, like The Facts, Patrimony, and The Counterlife. But I savored the Zuckerman novels, especially the novella, The Ghost Writer, with which he introduced his alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, and which features one of his wonderfully outrageous conceits, when his narrator imagines that a charming young woman having an affair of sorts with an older, famed Jewish novelist might indeed be the real Anne Frank.

Roth was at the height of his game when he produced the "American trilogy" of American Pastoral, I Married A Communist, and The Human Stain.  The first 95 pages of the first are a magnificent riff on how a Jewish-owned glove business originated, grew, and declined in Newark. In the second, he dipped into politics by covering the McCarthy era, and the third, where he also entered the lists against what became "cancel culture" and racial "passing." In Sabbath's Theater, which may have been his favorite of all his fiction, he presented a character who was more engaged in offbeat or kinky behavior than even the more celebrated Portnoy.

The political satire, Our Gang, was skippable, although I did read this rather ham-handed account of the Nixon gang. I never had enough interest to check out The Breast or other such explorations. His last novels were briefer, and in my view, a return to his skilled fiction--books like Indignation, Everyman, and Nemesis. Although I enjoyed them all, they were lesser works to some degree because he could not develop his stories as he had in earlier novels. 

I have not intended to dismiss The Plot Against America, his historical novel in which he speculates on a Nazi-sympathetic U.S. administration that takes power when Charles Lindbergh unexpectedly defeats FDR. I didn't read it for years until it was made into a TV series, and then I found that he finally had succeeded in a political book. In its own way, it is a modern classic. When he was around 80, Roth decided to retire from writing. I felt that his last novel, Nemesis, about a polio outbreak during World War II in Newark, of course, was a good one and that he did quit at near, if not at, the top of his form. 

I happened to see a new biography of him, Philip Roth, by a Canadian professor, Ira Nadel, in a local bookstore and picked it up, It is lengthy and so far, I don't think it is successful as a literary biography by Claudia Roth Pierpont that was published within the last year or two. I did not realize that the authorized biography by Blake Bailey was imminent, until I read a review of both Nadel's and Bailey's bios in The N.Y. Review of Books. This review blasted Nadel and praised Bailey's work (and didn't give much attention to a memoir by an old friend of Roth's, also published now). Then two days ago, the N.Y. Times printed a negative review of Bailey's book, which won't be published until next Tuesday, in the dubious tradition of the publishing business--reviews tend to appear days or weeks before a book is published and available for purchase. 

So I probably will look at both and take my choice after I pays my money. Roth, who engineered the production of a 10-volume series of his collected works in The Library of America, and truly tried to control his biographer, at least his authorized one, should be pleased wherever he is now at the attention he is and will continue to be getting. To my mind, he remains a fascinating, incredibly amusing, and trenchant chronicler of American-Jewish culture. 

Those short stories appended to Goodbye, Columbus remain among his best work. The first to get huge attention was "Defender of the Faith," about a Jewish U.S. Army sergeant forced by his moral code to act against a young Jewish soldier who tries to play on their religious-ethnic connection. It was published in The New Yorker in the late 1940s and not surprisingly stirred the pot as the rabbis and the machers of the Jewish community demanded that "this man be silenced." I doubt they realized then that they were mightily helping Roth on his way to fame and fortune.


Saturday, February 6, 2021

The Last Classically-Trained Actor

 Christopher Plummer died at 91, having triumphed on stage, screen, and television. He learned to act the old-fashioned way, through technique abd building on his innate personality and skills. Although he played Hamlet, Henry V, and Lear, all Shakespearean tragic heros with notable flaws, he seemed to have special relish for the villain's role, from Shakespeare's Richard III to endless evil characters in otherwise forgotten TV shows.

I always had an affinity for him because he had his first Broadway success in the first Broadway play I ever saw. It was in 1955 and it was The Lark, an English adaptation by Lillian Hellman of Jean Anouilh's play about Joan of Arc. If you look at the cast list today, it blows your mind. The stars were Julie Harris, herself launching a spectacular theatrical career, and playing a rare dramatic role on stage, none other than Boris Karloff. Plummer was Warwick, the English general, who was the principal villain, since the Bishop, who enables the English to burn Joanfor heresy, is torn by his conscience far more than the military man. It was ironic that the more complex role was filled by a far more classic villain, Karloff.

Also in the cast were a young Theodore Bikel as the local member of the nobility who becomes Joan's first convert, and Joseph Wiseman, who went on to play many wonderful supporting roles on Broadway and TV, usually as a villain. I remember him best in Child's Play, where he was one of two leads who were Catholic school teachers. Wiseman of course was the martinet and the nice guy was played by Pat Hingle, another frequent villain. One of Bikel's best roles was as Zoltan Karpathy, "that dreadful Hungarian," in My Fair Lady.

Plummer managed to win a lot of attention even among this stellar cast. He always added to the quality of the shows, movies, and TV programs in which he appeared. He was a mainstay of the two Stratford's--Connecticut and Ontario; at the former, sadly long gone, he gave what many critics called the best Shakespearean performance ever, playing Iago to James Earl Jones's Othello. 

He was also temperamentally suited to playing one of the greatest Shakespeare stars, John Barrymore, in the eponymous play, because like Barrymore, whose career was cut short by his early death from drinking and excess, Plummer hit the booze hard and lived the fast life for years, blaming himself for the end of his first two marriages. 

His most enduring role was the one he despised until he accepted that it would always be popular: Baron von Trapp in The Sound of Music. Reading how much he hated the part, my heart warmed because I'd always ahared his low opinion of the saccharine vehicle.  I recall a takeoff in a revue on Broadway long ago which featured Hermioned Gingold as the lead in "The Sound of Schmaltz"

He managed to win an Oscar as well as Tonys and recognized that he was lucky to be one of those actors who was instantly recalled by audiences even if they couldn't quite come up with his name. I only wish I had been able to see him more often onstage, where he likely did his greatest work.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

The Inevitable Day Came

I can't claim I was the first to warn us that this crew might well have a coup in mind. More informed people were speculating about it. But this was the result of four-plus years of tolerating Trump. It was the result of people like the Wall Street ranter who sent out a neswletter that Trump was great for the Street and thus there was no doubt he'd be re-elected and that that was the only result anyone with brains wanted.

It's also time to regret feeling that Hillary Clinton blew it when she called the scum that invaded the Capitol yesterday "the deplorables". She was being too restrained. I still blame Hillary's overpaid, cocky, and totally out-of-it senior staff for screwing up her campaign. And she gets the blame for not listening to Bill even if she didn't want him out there on the trail in 2016. He could bring out the best in people who feel they've been mistreated, instead of the worst that the present incumbent draws out.

Until now, I hadn't even taken much notice of the little punk, Josh Hawley of Missouri. This is the best Yale Law School can give us, along with Clarence Thomas. And Harvard Law can answer for Ted Criz, too. Hawley really thought that he could pick up Trump's filthy legacy to ride to the White House in four years. Even after yesterday's riot, he still was trying to push Trump's baseless nonsense. I wish Claire McCaskill, who was the Senator he ousted by Missouri's resident idiot voters, had been free on MSNBC to describe this pompous jerk.

This all shows that the ends justify the means to most of these people: the pols like McConnell and McCarthy., Pence and Graham. And yes, that Wall Street clown I mentioned earlier. "He's good for business...and for us" was their credo. "Where's mine?" Presidential relatives have long been mostly embarrassment for past White Houses. Billy Carter, Roger Clinton, Don Nixon, Eisenhower's older brother (not Milton), Bush's cousin who was chortling with Trump that time about grabbing women by the youknowhat. But Trump Jr. and his siblings or half-siblings or whatever really stand out as the lowest of the low. n they

All these smart guys who got burned by the spectre of power they traded their integrity for when they signed on for this administration. They all were burned or disgraced or just rendered ineffective at best. Mattis, who finally broke his silence; Sessions, who figured he could satisfy his desires for the attention that eluded him on the Hill; all the hangers-on with warped values.

The law enforcement people who stood aside and ler returnedt these marauders into the Capitol. It's been noted how they would have launched howitzers at a similar group of invaders if they were black. People like Mitt Romney have emerged with new lustre--even G.W. Bush provided a fine statement yesterday: And yes, Dick and Liz Cheney rose to the occasion--wow! it's hard to believe how bad he was in office and yet how favorably he compares with the incumbent.

Will life ever return to normal after COVID? Will the old norms of political behavior ever re-emerge after this profane period? I hope for the best but I expect the worst. The rich filth have seized control and they will spend whatever it takes to keep on stealing through tax breaks and outright handouts from the public trough. It will take a lot more than outrage at the spectacle we witnessed on TV yesterday to effect change. 

We need a complete housecleaning and the country missed its chance in November--sure, Biden got in but they returned all those sleazebag GOP Senators who should have been beaten. It was encouraging that owing to the work of people like Stacey Abrams, Georgia gave us the two Democratic Senators to make the new VP provide the majority. I would have made her the Attorney General. 



Sunday, January 3, 2021

Things Get Curioser and Curioser

 The trendiest words I've encountered over the past few years are "evidence-based" plans, programs, or findings. Although like most concepts that achieve great popularity, evidence-based started out as a genuine effort to bring some reality to project planning and other programs, its limitations have grown evident as it has gradually been incorporated into the lexicon of grantmaking and plannng.

However, I'm not entirely sure anyone expected to see the rise of argument without any evidence. This is what the legions supporting Trump have presented us as their crowning legacy. The American rejection of Trump by seven million votes (roughly 81 to 74) is being opposed by a campaign that has failed to present any evidence that the election was in any way "rigged" or otherwise stolen. 

This in itself is unusual--there's usually been chicanerr y in every election but it hasn't affected the result all that frequently. It's enough to make one admit after years of denial that the leftists of the 60s may have had it right after all: those ensconced in power will do anything to avoid relinquishing any of their suzerainty. 

We are facing on January 6 the spectatcle of a large number of Republicans in Congress object to certifying the electoral vote for Biden based on nothing. And we have a president encouraging armed supporters to come to Washington. He's also installed cronies at the head of the Defense Department and other powerful agencies. If you don't start thinking that a coup is possible and that some preparation to resist it is in order, I suggest you are delusional.

This whole totally false post-election protest has left our political structure and constitutional government hanging by a thread. A few individual members of state canvassing board have held the line against throwing out millions of votes just on someone's say-so that there was malfeasance or that rules weren't followed.

If anyone was messing with the system, it was the Republican-dominated legislatures that are successfully practicing voter suppression. Closing polling places, limiting mail-in voting, and restricting early balloting are all such suppression devices. Photo ID is another. No one has present any credible evidence that there have been violations of the rules to justify any of this vicious attempt to disenfranchise legitimate voters.

But we have top-of-their-class Harvard and Yale law grads like Cruz and Hawley demanding an audit where no one has shown any basis for needing one. We are depending on Pence not to throw a monkey wrench into the certification process. They even cite the 1876 electoral commission which was a totally corrupt fraud. Democrats went along with GOP theft of the presidency in return for the end of Reconstruction.

Like banana republics and other states we have often scorned, the U.S. may have to take on another pitched battle against the real enemy within--the reactionary right that has found its demagogue to lead both the unthinking and those dedicated to maintaining the 1% in control by any means.