This week we're going to look into the published arts and examine some of the wonderful books which have been sent for review. I love to read, and I try to read as much as possible.
I want to take this opportunity to remind you that usually presenting organizations are standing in line for the columns which we write between Thanksgiving and Christmas, but this year we do have some openings, as of this writing. If you'd like us to examine and announce your events in the coming holiday season, we encourage you to contact us soon.
It's getting cold, wet and slippery. What a great time to spend some time in a comfortable chair with a book full of wonderful words, thoughts and emotions.
At left: Michael Chabon recently penned “A Story of Detection” and “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.” At right: Malachy McCourt, whose latest book is “Singing My Him Song.”
Californian Michael Chabon is one of my favorite living writers of fiction. I've written in the past about my delight in some of his works, including "Wonder Boys," "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh" and "Werewolves in Their Youth." In recent weeks, I've read two very different creations from his remarkable mind.
"A Story of Detection" has the feeling of an experiment. It's really a long short story. And, it is a deliberate attempt to write in the style of an earlier, well-known writer, and to extend his writing into the future. More about that later.
Someone to Watch Over Me
Toronto's Adeona Productions invite the public to examine and experience the lives of westerners, taken hostage by Middle Eastern terrorists, in a performance of a play by Frank McGuinness, "Someone to Watch Over Me." The play has won the New York Critics' Circle Award and Writer's Guild award, and was nominated for a Tony. Called "an examination of the strength of the human spirit," the production will be performed in the upstairs venue at the Berkeley Street Theatre in downtown Toronto for 10 performances. Performances run Dec. 3 to 13, Monday through Saturday at 8 p.m., with a matinee on Saturday at 2 p.m.
Tickets range from $15 to $30. Monday performances only, "Pay What You Can" tickets are available. For reservations or information, phone (416) 368-3110 or visit www.canstage.com.
It's not unusual for readers to say they would love to attend exhibits which we describe in the column, but are unable for some reason to attend in person. Increasingly, museums and galleries are offering the second-best thing: the opportunity to see the exhibits on personal computers.
For example, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, one of the finest in the world, will offer upcoming exhibits, including one of paintings by Cezanne (Feb. 26 to May 17,) architectural design by Frank Gehry (Nov. 8 to April 5,) Matisse and other artists of the French Riviera (Dec. 13 to Nov. 1, 2009,) and many more.
Use the Web address www.philamuseum.exhibitions. It's the next-best thing to being there.
Winks is compiled by Robert Plyler.
"The Yiddish Policemen's Union" is a different experiment. It deliberately sets out to capture your attention with an unappealing setting and a great deal of its characters and events in a language unfamiliar to many Western New Yorkers. It took several days of forcing myself to read the book before that magical "click" took place and I was captured, eager to know what happened to these people and why.
As the title suggests, "The Yiddish Policemen's Union" is a fantasy tale of Jewish policemen and a nearly all-Jewish culture, with a twist. Chabon asks his readers to imagine that the attempts to establish a Jewish state in the Middle East, at the end of World War II, hadn't worked.
He imagines that the United States, as the only victor in the war which wasn't directly occupied or severely attacked, had accepted the responsibility to find a place of refuge for the survivors of Hitler's death camps. He proposes that the Truman administration had sought for a large tract of relatively empty land in a territory which wasn't yet a state and couldn't claim the full protection of the U.S. government.
They settled on Alaska. He pictures the islands and peninsulas of Alaska's Pan Handle as the new Jewish state - the Sitka District - peopled by Jews who are three generations removed from the nightmare of the 1930s and '40s. He pictures them inhabiting a semi-autonomous state, not American citizens, yet not completely independent, either.
As American elections come and go, various candidates and interest groups have attempted solutions for the situation.
Meyer Landsman is a policeman in the new territory. He's getting older. He can't climb stairs as fast as he once could, and chases on foot after young criminals are getting more difficult. Meyer's two closest associates are his ex-wife, who has been promoted to being his supervisor, and a huge, massively strong young cousin, now his official partner, whose personality is torn between the culture of his Jewish father and that of his Native Alaskan mother.
The official policy of the Sitka government is for police to keep order and not to attract any attention from the outside world, nor to encounter the wrath of any local organization working full time to influence the uncertainty of the district's future. Will the Sitka residents be absorbed into the United States, given independence, be re-settled somewhere else, or cut loose with or without anything of value to use to buy land or establish a life somewhere else?
One day, Meyer stumbles right into a major scandal. The only son of the most powerful rabbi in the district has been murdered. His policeman's soul feels compelled to solve the murder, although a lot of people with a lot of influence try to stop his investigation.
No matter the time of year, the setting always reminded me of our own area in early March: cold, gray, dark and wet. Since the settlers of Sitka were originally Germans, Pole, Czechs and other nationalities, they speak a sometimes daunting mixture of all their original languages, with both Hebrew and Yiddish and a generous slathering of English. All these elements contributed to my initial difficulty in reading the story.
By the end, however, as the depth and breadth of the plot behind the murder is unfolded, the story is truly riveting and very difficult to put down. You need to decide whether you'll be able to get far enough along for that to happen.
"The Yiddish Policemen's Union" has 411 pages, in paper bound edition.
Turning to "A Story of Detection," that book is an attempt by the writer to completely change his style, forms of expression, structure of writing, and essentially to write another Sherlock Holmes book for the late Arthur Conan Doyle.
It is fairly commonly believed that an individual who is very successful owes part of that success to his own talents, part to the circumstances of his life, and part to other people's perception of that individual's gifts. If you're told that someone is a great singer, for example, you're more likely to enjoy his singing than if you are expecting him to be average or worse.
Chabon imagines the great Sherlock Holmes in old age, having retired from his career as a criminalist, and moved from the metropolis of London to a tiny seaside village. The technology of crime detection has passed him by, and his sources of information have died or retired from their positions of power, leaving him something of an outsider. People no longer treat him as a genius.
Into the old man's life comes a damaged 9-year-old who has survived the horrors of the Holocaust. Young Linus Steinman has been rendered mute by all the horrors he witnessed. His only companion and friend is a gray, African parrot, which continually speaks long rows of numbers in German.
Soon all kinds of people are forming suggestions of what the numbers mean. What if it's a secret Nazi code, revealing the names of war criminals or the hiding place of treasures? What if they're the numbers of Swiss bank accounts containing billions in wealth looted by the Nazis, or hidden from them? No one but the aging detective seems to care much what happens to a poor and defenseless child, nor to his beloved bird, once it has rendered up its secrets. Will he be able to outwit the forces aligned against the boy with his outdated techniques and aging strengths?
"A Story of Detection" has 131 pages in paper bound edition.
The family of Malachy McCourt is so well known, some people know more about them than they do about their own relatives.
Beginning with "Angela's Ashes," by McCourt's brother, Frank McCourt, and continuing in many more books by one or both brothers, the stories of their rise from the slums of Ireland to success in business and entertainment in the United States have been very well documented.
Younger brother Malachy penned the story of his own younger days in the book "A Monk Swimming," ranging from his career as a guest on numerous talk shows, performances on two different popular soap operas, career as a smuggler and days as a popular saloon keeper to the famous of New York City, joined to his days-long drinking sprees and smashings of furniture. Now he has written a second volume about his conquest of the drink and the temper tantrums which marked his youth, and his return to Ireland to come to terms with his own history. The new title is "Singing My Him Song."
Last winter, McCourt appeared in person at the 1891 Opera House in Fredonia in the play "A Couple of Blackguards," which he co-wrote with his more famous brother.
The new volume has much of the same bravado and the wonderful Celtic flair for perfect words for which all McCourt books are noted. The new book details the challenges of raising his children, attempting to save them the errors he made himself while growing up. He attempts to accept and forgive his parents for their own failings and inability to prevent him from those same blunders.
He finds a strong and lasting marriage, and overcomes the illusions about what a marriage should be, which contributed to the end of his first marriage, and faces a struggle with cancer.
Through it all, there is a strong, clear narrative voice seemingly holding nothing back. He blurts out his own weaknesses and failings as readily as his triumphs and successes. He'll tell you what he was thinking when he did them, but he won't make excuses or justifications.
You won't always admire him, nor agree with him, but you'll enjoy reading about him.The book has 240 pages in hard bound edition.
Not everyone loves historical fiction, but I always have. There are many ways of teaching history, and if your mind doesn't accord to one of them, it can be deadly dull if you're forced to study in that method.
Personally, I've never cared for a lot of theories, trends and philosophies. My love for history is for true stories of people, the events of their lives and the consequences of their decisions, from which I could extrapolate my own theories, trends and philosophies. I suspect this is much of the root of my well-known contempt for standardized, multiple choice exams. I think they have damaged our nation's education system to a degree which won't be fully understood for decades.
British author Robert Harris recently published a fictional biography of the great Roman politician and orator Marcus Cicero, which I found fascinating. Its title is "Imperium," the name the Romans gave to absolute power for an individual.
Cicero was famed for his ability to win over both politicians and crowds through his moving and easy-to-understand speeches. He lived at the time when Julius Caesar was making the moves which would eventually change Rome from a republic to an empire. Cicero was not a brave man, and often sacrificed his personal principles to evade the threats of Caesar and other powerful men in the Roman government, such as Cato and Pompey the Great. On the other hand, he was dogged, and skilled at getting together so much support that it wouldn't have been safe to murder him.
It is historically true that Cicero owned a slave named Tiro, and it is believed that Tiro wrote a biography of his famous master, which was destroyed during the Middle Ages. Harris has used a combination of research and creativity to write a fictional version of that biography.
The book creates a very clear and interesting portrait of Cicero. He made his fame through two conflicting events: he successfully defended a man who was accused of murdering his own father, when the common people and the people in power all believed the man was guilty, and then prosecuted a Roman governor who had many connections with the people in power, as well as the money and position necessary to buy the support of the common mob.
Harris shows us how one person could be at once a spirited defender of an individual's rights and a tireless prosecutor of the law's power. Tiro spins a tale of his master's vanities, his strengths and weaknesses, and events in his life which are provable, including a marriage of convenience to a wealthy woman named Terentia and the skillful way the non-loving couple were able to work out a relationship which benefited them both without any personal devotion at all.
In our current culture, where politicians regularly twist the truth and use the public's prejudices and lack of knowledge to pursue their selfish gains, all the while appearing as noble patriots, there is training for the mind willing to seek the blossom of truth among the weeds of lies and distortions.
"Imperium" has 305 pages in hard bound edition. History serves as a much better guide for the present, when you learn it in human terms, rather than as a pageant of demi-gods who live lives unlike anyone you've ever met or could conceive of knowing.