Saturday, October 6, 2018

Listening to Lepore

Jill Lepore's essays in The New Yorker have been an adornment there for some time. She is of course a prominent historian, holding a chair at Harvard as well as a staff writer position on the magazine. Perhaps this demonstrates how her writing style is wonderfully enticing, but is accompanied by a piercing capacity to look at history from a different direction and provide enlightenment in areas previously undisturbed for eons.

She spoke at Politics and Prose bookstore in DC recently and accompanied her lecture with slides that illustrated how much of what we assume is totally new in American life, especially politics, has occurred before, or as she said, our history offers multiple precedents. I've started reading her lengthy new history of the U.S., These Truths, which expands on her essays but essentially focuses on the parts of American history she deems important and often previously ignored.

The overarching theme of the first section, for example, is the conflict between liberty and slavery that dominated the entire "discovery" and colonization of the New World. Examining the events of those centuries through this viewpoint gives new meaning to what were previously mere statements of what happened.

I've found her essays always stimulating. In several pages, she covers an amazing amount of ground, usually penetrating to the core of her subject. I've read several biographies of Clarence Darrow, including his own, but her short summary of his life, career, and significance did a better job of explicating the story of America's greatest lawyer than any of the longer works.

She wrote not long ago about the crime victims' movement in the U.S., something with which I've been involved now for several years. It struck me that she was the first analyst I've encountered who wrestled with the continuing tension between the rights of defendants and victims. This has not been easy to resolve nor should it be. Lepore forces us to confront these competing interests and strive to find ways to reconcile them. 

Beckett and Lepore

Putting Beckett in the title of my last posting here turned out to be particularly Beckettian as by the time I finished going on about opera, I had totally forgotten to discuss Beckett. Each month, the Capital James Joyce Group meets at Politics and Prose bookstore in DC: after reading Joyce's novels and stories aloud, we decided to tackle three short Samuel Beckett novels.

Beckett's relationship to Joyce comes from their common origins in Ireland although the Protestant Beckett (1906-1989) went to Trinity College, Dublin, and Joyce (1882-1941), a Catholic, to University College. Both left Ireland to create their work and reside in exile. In Beckett's case, he was mostly in Paris, where when Joyce spent some years there, Beckett served as his secretary. Both, of course, charted totally new courses for the novel. 

Beckett lived long enough to win the Nobel Prize in 1969. Beckett's prose is usually not as dense with allusion and other semi-hidden content as Joyce's; this does not make it any easier to read as his characters rant or reflect seemingly endlessly as they confront what generally looms in his work as the meaninglessness of existence. You can conclude that it does not matter where you pick up a Beckett novel because starting in at any point does not make much difference.

The pearls in Joyce are actually more obvious, excepting, as always, Finnegans Wake, which remains sui generis and probably resulted from his effort over the last two decades of his wife to virtually create a new language which incorporates the many others in which he was fluent. But in Ulysses, there is a generous view of life in 1904 Dublin, complete with humor as well as pathos.

Joyce's musicality makes reading his prose aloud lends a great deal to enjoying his work. Beckett also gains from hearing his writing aloud because his sometimes endless sentences and paragraphs can otherwise make it difficult to digest or even grasp what he's saying. If his characters didn't focus so much on the quotidian and the practical obstacles of life, which often results in humor, his stories would lean toward depression. His overall theme has been stated as despair followed by the will to live.

Beckett himself once addressed how he differed from Joyce: "I realized that Joyce had gone as far as one could in the direction of knowing more, [being] in control of one’s material. He was always adding to it; you only have to look at his proofs to see that. I realized that my own way was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, in subtracting rather than in adding."

One critic once noted in describing Waiting for Godot that Beckett succeeded in writing a play in which nothing happens and then repeated in the second act what he had written in the first and so succeeded in writing a play where nothing happens twice. Godot, however has become much more accepted in the theatrical canon (which might disturb Beckett) because every time you see it (as with Joyce, his work plays more effectively than it reads), you discern more. 

Friday, October 5, 2018

An Operatic Interlude, then Beckett

Wednesday found me at the dress rehearsal for La Traviata at the Washington National Opera, as the local company is now styled. To my mind, this extremely popular Verdi mid-period opera may be the most delightful of operas when it comes to pure musicality and the singing opportunities it offers. The cast were all making their debuts at this company, which tells one little about their background: Venera Gimadieva as Violetta, Joshua Guerrero as Alfredo, and Lucas Meacham as his father, Giorgio.

Aside from leading the famous Brindisi, the drinking song, at the start of the first act, Alfredo has no major singing (he does join Violetta again in a brief duet) until the second act. Violetta is the star of the opening act with the two major arias that end the act: È strano! ... Ah, fors'è lui , in which she contemplates whether he is the one to take her away from her self-destructive partying life as a courtesan (to use the classic euphemism that is always used in describing her), and then Sempre libere (always free) which expresses her seeming choice to live her seemingly joyous life until her already likely early death from consumption.

These, together with the preceding party scene with the brindisi and love duet and general singing, make this act one of the glories of opera: just steady delightful song from orchestra and singers. Act Two introduces the not-so-nasty villain of the piece, Alfredo's father, Giorgio Germont, who urges Violetta to abandon Alfredo so that Alfredo's sister may marry successfully, which has been threatened by Alfredo's relationship with Violetta. She does follow his request and Alfredo storms after her.

The baritone here is far from the villainous Count de Luna of Il Trovatore or Don Carlo in La Forza del Destino.  Those are Verdi baritone roles of unremitting evil. Giorgio is given a wonderful aria to make his position sympathetic, even in our very different time. Alfredo previously has had some good singing and to me, this first scene continues the uninterrupted delight of the first act.

Francesca Zambello, Washington Opera's artistic director (and also in charge of the Glimmerglass Opera) is directing this production, which does have excellent sets and costumes. She has chosen to place the intermission between the two scenes of Act Two, which is far from traditional, but which works well. Scene Two is Flora's party, There's some gypsy and Spanish "entertainment" featuring dancing girls and then Alfredo's denunciation of Violetta and encounter with her regular consort, the Baron, Giorgio appears to chide him.

After a scene change, Act Three takes place in Violetta's bedroom where she is dying. There is a carnival outside in Paris and this production makes the bedroom seem like a hospital word, a motif used in the opening pre-party Prelude before Act One. Alfredo and Giorgio appear to make amends before the well-played (in this production) death scene.

This is a frequently-performed opera; I've probably seen four or five different productions and heard more on the radio. All in all, this was a delightful operatic evening, with good singing and excellent conducting by Renato Palumbo.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Refreshing My Legal Skills

I'm set to go back to work part-time. It's where I worked a few years ago--the Maryland Crime Victims' Resource Center. This time, I'm going to represent crime victims in administrative hearings and appeals to the courts. I was given the chance to attend a three-day training course offered to new Legal Aid attorneys by Maryland Legal Aid in Marriottsville, Maryland.

I opted in and attended, mainly because I've not been in a courtroom as a practitioner in a long time. It was both useful and fun--I got to hear some good, practical lecturers, mostly on evidence, and to make opening and closing statements, get documents admitted and an expert qualified, and conduct both direct and cross. The critiques--mostly by senior Legal Aid lawyers--were helpful and knowledgeable.

I likely was the oldest "new attorney" in attendance but that did not either bother me or make any difference. I was there to learn skills just like any other lawyer who hasn't been in the courts to try cases--in a long time, for me. One case was landlord-tenant and the other was child custody. They had been using the first for years and just made up the second. 

To me, the best lecturer was a long-time practitioner who now runs a bar review. He might have been the only person there--and that includes all the other lecturers and senior staff who were the judges--older than me. He was highly pragmatic and urged us to just keep using the techniques he described because then they would become second nature.

Some have asked why I'm going back to work--even part-time. I'm not at all bored with what I'm doing now. I won't be getting enough money for it to make a major difference. So I don't have a good answer: it's probably because it seems like it could be both satisfying and useful--and also fun.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

'The Wife' and 'Crazy Rich Asians'

Two new movies: The Wife is based on one of Meg Wolitzer's early novels--her penultimate one, The Interestings, was very good. She writes wonderfully and in Glenn Close, her leading character was played perfectly.

Jonathan Pryce is also excellent as the supremely egotistical husband: I did not see him in the original Miss Saigon but I do recall his initial  appearance on Broadway in Trevor Griffiths's play, Comedians, in which he plays a young British comedian with a totally different style. The promoter auditioning the comics discerns how good the young comic will be even though he realizes that his shtick is unlikely to succeed at first and in the provinces.

Close does deserve awards here and should get them even though I am skeptical of so-called sympathy votes. She should win this time on the merits. Her role requires her maintaining a closed exterior and as some reviews have noted, the movie does not include her witty lines in the novel as narrator.

Crazy Rich Asians is a fun picture, not to be taken too seriously but enjoyed. It's yet another example in our times of identity culture of a story that makes fun of its ethnic group but is seen as acceptable because the producers, cast, and crew are all member of the group. This does not take away from the picture's being well-made and clever.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Retracing the Broadway Limited--Part II

So the link that demanded some scrutiny was between Cleveland and Pittsburgh. The Broadway Limited continued after Pittsburgh on the Pennsy Main Line and around Alliance, Ohio, which happens to be the only stop now between Pittsburgh and Cleveland, it headed west through Lima, Ohio, and on to Chicago. The train (Capitol Limited) now joins this Main Line eastward bound near Alliance, apparently on a Pennsy line that went to Cleveland and ended there. This whole segment was transited in the middle of the night so it was impossible to discern stations along the way that might have helped resolve the matter (I also was asleep a good deal of the time once we left Cleveland).

The first part of the trip resembled all train journeys from Chicago: leave Union Station to the south--the exceptions are northward-bound trains like the Empire Builder, headed for Minneapolis on the way to Portland and Seattle--and pass through the South Side, including a sweep past Guaranteed Rate Stadium, formerly White Sox Park, which replaced ancient Comiskey Park. I had been part of the 15,000 or so who watched the Sox rally to top the Twins--both mediocre American League clubs--the previous day.

Then we passed Lake Michigan on the left as the train sailed through Indiana, stopping at South Bend and then Elkhart before reaching Waterloo, which is now the station serving Ft. Wayne. Ft. Wayne was a station on the original Broadway Limited line, although the train did not stop there. Having enjoyed the prepackaged short ribs, I slept past Toledo and woke up as we edged into Cleveland, or a station that looked to be both new and nowhere near downtown. I can sleep on trains but this train slowed often, sometimes to let freights pass.

Arriving in Pittsburgh before daybreak, I had a two-hour layover before boarding the Pennsylvanian, the only other train that serves Pittsburgh. The platforms look ancient but the station is one of those newer Amtrak facilities designed for places with few trains. As we filed down the platform to the station, I passed a train on the facing track which, much to my surprise, the station agent--a gregarious, pleasant woman--told me was indeed the Pennsylvanian.

Two hours later we were on our way again, quite a few passengers having sat out the two-hour spell with me. Western Pennsylvania is rocky and mountainous, providing plenty of charming scenery. Greensburg is the first stop, about 40 minutes out, and has a wonderful old Pennsy station complete with clock tower. For a small town, it had a large building a block or so from the tracks that looked like a major hotel. 

Next stop was Johnstown and you can see the mountains on both sides, where high up on one was the infamous dam built by the one-percenters of those days for their recreation. When it burst, that was the Johnstown Flood. Then on to Altoona, where the Pennsylvania Railroad had its major shops. Just before you come down into the foothills of the Alleghenies, we traversed the famous Horseshoe Curve, an engineering marvel built in 1854 and at its centre is a park where several visitors armed with cameras captured our eastbound train, one of two to pass by there daily. The Broadway did stop in Altoona (Harrisburg was its only other stop between Philly and Pittsburgh), probably to pick up another added engine going westbound up the Appalachian slopes.

We moved slowly into Harrisburg, coming down from Lewiston, then and now the closest stop to Penn State (not all that close). The line reaches the Susquehanna some miles above the state capital, then crosses the wide, island-filled, non-navigable river on a low bridge just before Harrisburg. In the old days the train must have used the now-abandoned multi-arched bridge right at Harrisburg. :Leaving Harrisburg--we lost some time getting through a work area before that stop--we continued downriver, almost to Three Mile Island, and could see its now-familiar three smokestacks.

The train moved smoothly now through neat Pennsylvania Dutch farmland to Lancaster. Eventually we reached what still is called the Main Line suburbs of Philadelphia, beginning at Paoli, where we stopped. Then we passed multiple suburban stops until passing the last one, Overbrook, its high school perhaps Philly's most famous incubator of basketball players. 30th Street Station is actually the newest of the grand old stations with hundred-foot high plastered ceilings. The men's room was the scene of a tense encounter in the film Witness and you can get a decent cheesesteak and other good comestibles in the station, where I had another two-hour layover.

Had I remained on the Capitol Limited, I'd have arrived in Washington around 1 P.M. Now Amtrak was demanding a king's ransom to switch me onto one of the earlier trains I could've taken, so I enjoyed the always hard-hitting sports columnists of the Philadelphia Daily News, who couldn't decide whether they were more unhappy about the defending Super Bowl champ Eagles losing a preseason game to the Browns, possibly the NFL's worst team, or the Phillies for losing another. Since they remained six games ahead of the Nats, I figured they had little to complain about, but that's Philly sportswriters for you.

At last I boarded the train to Washington, which was amazingly on time and efficient, while also mostly empty since this was late on a summer Friday afternoon. It did improve my disposition by actually arriving in Union Station ten minutes early. The trip lived up to my expectations, especially, as anticipated, the classic section of the Broadway Limited route, now traversed from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia by the Pennsylvanian. The victuals served by its cafe car were well above average.

Retracing the Broadway Limited--Part I

Coming back from attending a conference in Chicago with Eileen, I opted to make the trip by train. She took the plane and arrived, of course, within hours. Not only did I arrange to travel on Amtrak but I included some connections to make the trip more interesting, although longer. (Eileen is willing to join me on rail for journeys no longer than one day and one night; this trip did meet that standard, if barely, since I departed Union Station, Chicago, at 6:40 P.M. and arrived at Union Station, D.C., at 7:40 P.M. the next day. There was precedent for her flying: when we were in the U.K. for almost a year, I traveled from London to Edinburgh on the famed Flying Scotsman, then a crack day train--Newcastle was the only intermediate stop--run by British Rail. She chose instead to go on the Flying Scotsman that flew.)

I started out on the Capitol Limited, Amtrak's fastest train between Chicago and Washington. There are two slower ways: the Lake Shore Limited, via the old New York Central "Water-Level" Route through Toledo, Cleveland, Buffalo, Syracuse, Albany, down the Hudson to New York, and then down the Northeast Corridor to Washington; and the Cardinal, through Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Charleston, White Sulphur Springs and Clifton Forge (for the Greenbrier and Homestead, respectively), Charlottesville, and Washington.

Having already ridden the Cardinal, which offers wonderful scenery in West Virginia especially, which would not be otherwise viewable except by hiking, but which is now one of Amtrak's smaller trains, with a tiny hard-pressed staff serving a sleeping car and combined diner-lounge. It now looks more attractive, because Amtrak is experimenting on the Capitol and Lake Shore Limiteds with prepackaged meals--the dinner was surprisingly good but I was at my first transfer point before it was time for what looked on the menu to be a rather uninspiring breakfast.

Instead, I was aiming to retrace the route of the Pennsylvania Railroad's one-time crack express between New York and Chicago--the Broadway Limited, the Pennsy's competitor to the New York Central's 20th Century Limited. Amtrak has chosen not to run the Broadway but does operate a day train between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia called the Pennsylvanian. My plan was to start on the Capitol Limited, change to the Pennsylvanian at Pittsburgh, and then board a Northeast Regional train at Philadelphia.

Both the Broadway and 20th Century Limiteds were exclusive, sleepers-only trains, with no coaches and no checked baggage. The Capitol Limited, which was one of the Baltimore & Ohio's top trains, was in that class, too, running from Baltimore to Washington, and thence west to Pittsburgh and Chicago. The Broadway listed its consist as a lounge car, at least ten sleepers, an observation car, and a diner.

Since the Broadway Limited route no longer functions in its entirety, I had to improvise as noted. But the first part of the Capitol Limited route actually uses the old 20th Century Limited (N.Y. Central) route from Chicago to Cleveland. From Pittsburgh, of course, the old Broadway route across Pennsylvania is the same as it was in the glory days. Coming into Philly, the train does head for 30th St. Station, while the Broadway turned north at the junction with what is now the Northeast Corridor (N.Y. to D.C.) route and headed to New York (Penn Station, naturally) only stopping at North Philadelphia in the Quaker City. (This is likely why Amtrak conductors for years would announce stops at 30th St. with the add-on "This is the only station stop in Philadelphia" because some trains turned west before reaching 30th St. but did stop at North Philadelphia, which comes before the turn-off.)