Monday, October 29, 2007

Bel Canto

Funny how things work out. The Oct. 1 New Yorker runs an article about Ann Patchett's new book, Run and the library schedules Bel Canto for their Nov. discussion and with the stars aligning themselves like that I got hold of Bel Canto and couldn't stop once I started it. She uses a situation in Peru some years ago when terrorists took hostages during a party at the president's house. Their prize is an opera singer whose voice has thrilled audiences around the world.

Readers could sit around all day talking about the characters. who gradually adapt in surprising and unexpected ways. It's not exactly the Stockholm Syndrome. Something more subtle is at work. Perhaps it's something about the power of art to heal. There's the music as the opera singer begins to share her gift with the others. Because most of the hostages aren't familiar with the music, the reader doesn't have to be either.

New Yorker review of the book here:

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Wind That Shakes The Barley

We saw an Irish film last night: The Wind That Shakes The Barley. Directed by an Englishman, Ken Loach, it is harshly critical of British rule in Ireland. What made it spooky was how the action in it reflected what's going on in Iraq at the moment. But in this case the bad guys are the British, not the Americans. It's the British who beat people up and destroy their homes, and call them horrible names. The time period is Ireland in 1920-21 when the Irish Republican Army formed to resist British rule. The focus is on one unit of men who form in County Cork to fight British rule. Vastly outnumbered they still manage to inflict damage and casualties on the British. But the British regiment, the Blakc and Tans, inflict far greater torture, deatb and destruction on the Irish. The Black and Tans were mercenaries hired by the government for better pay than soldiers got. The resemblance to Blackwater and its mercenaries in Iraq is clear. Not a very good film to go to bed on! I told Paul I'd pick a nice light and frothy French comedy for our next film.

Am reading a fine novel at the moment, Bel Canto by Ann Patchet.. Our library will hold a discussion on it in a couple of weeks, and I'll go and hear what others have to say about it. I'll tell you this.
A banquet is under way in the home of the Vice President of a poor Latin American country. A famous singer with the most beautiful voice in the world has been invited to perform. 200 people are guests. After the concert, the house is invaded by terrorists who take everyone hostage, including the singer. The streets outside begin to fill with rescue units......

The is from an online comment:

Even better the second time, September 28, 2007
By E. Almond (Boston, MA) - See all my reviews
I just finished Bel Canto for the second time, and enjoyed it even more than I did on first reading. Without rushing towards the end to find out "what happens" -- which I did, in spite of myself, the first time, I was able to luxuriate in Ms. Patchett's elegant, evocative sentences. Her characters are so deftly drawn that they will remain with you long after you close the covers of the book. She's able to do the impossible, it seems: write about love and music within a highly charged, almost over-the-top scenario, without ever becoming melodramatic or maudlin. I believed this book so deeply, it seemed every word was true. Every character was real. Every note of music was there for the listening. I understand why another reviewer bought every one of Ann Patchett's books after reading this one -- I'm about to do the same!

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin" (1852)

Read Uncle Tom's Cabin lately? I recently came to it for the first time and, you know what, it's a compelling page turner. It has a suspenseful plot and a readable style. No wonder it sold millions of copies, helped Harriet Beecher Stowe and her spouse get out of debt, and drew thousands of readers to the docks at Liverpool to greet her as she began her first European tour.

Stowe, who lived in Cincinnati for over twenty years, tackles American slavery head on and shows its corruptive influence on owners and slaves. Families are split and never reunited, pretty light-skinned young women are shipped down to the bordellos in New Orleans, children are torn from their mothers' arms and never seen again. Not all owners were cruel to their property (other than owning them of course), but Tom's kindly owner has to sell him down the river because of overwhelming debt. The worst of all slave owners is Simon Legree and eventually Uncle Tom falls into his hands and suffers vicious and graphically described tortures.

In reading the book I discovered that Uncle Tom was not an Uncle Tom. Later stage versions changed the character to a shuffling fool who pandered to his owners). In the novel he is noble and brave--a Christlike figure--who protects and sometimes saves his fellow creatures--some of them white.

When Abraham Lincoln met Harriet he said to her, "and you're the little lady he started the Civil War." The book had power then, and it still does.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

John Lanchester's Memoir

I'm in the middle of reading Family Romance: A Memoir by British novelist John Lanchester. The centerpiece is what Lanchester finds out about his mother after her death--that she had lied to his father in order to get him to marry her (no mention of her many years in a nunnery, and she put her age at 31 even though she was actually 41 and pregnant with John. (The man must have been a bit gullible). She never let her son know anything about being immured in one of the most strict and harsh Catholic orders in Ireland. They were The Sisters of the Good Shepherd, and coincidentally a few years ago the movie The Magdalene Sisters exposed the cruel treatment that went on in that sisterhood. For Lanchester, having a mum who had spent decades being a nun before she finally saw the light and escaped and married at the age of 41, it meant having a mother who could express no emotion or love, and lied to cover up her past. It gets a bit bogged down in parts, and I'm skipping some, but in the main it's good.

Shakespeare Wallah

This evening we saw, courtesy of Netflix, a most engrossing movie--Shakespeare Wallah--Merchant-Ivory's first picture, made in 1964.

Felicity Kendal was seventeen when she played the daughter of an actor-manager and his wife who spent their years with a little troupe of English actors touring India with productions of Shakespeare during India's post-independence period. It becomes increasingly difficult to get bookings and one scene is quite painful when the actor-manager faces up to rejection from one of his most reliable patrons. Lovely scene at a boarding house with the grand name of "Gleneagles." The actors have stayed there over the years many times, but it seems that it's in its twilight. . It's run by a Yorkshire woman who herself is dealing with rejection while a palatial new hotel is being built across the street.

The story is based on the experiences of Felicity's parents who themselves toured Indian for years and play themselves in the film. The DVD includes comments from Felicity, now in her sixties and still beautiful. She's very active on the London stage these days.

A review in The Daily Telegraph of her performance in a recent play says she took the challenge of taking over a part played by Judi Dench and made it her own.

Here's a reader comment from online:
.Set in post-independence India, it tells the story of a small, though thoroughly professional traveling Shakespeare company fallen on hard times. The troop, built on the talents of the three Buckingham family members, including the young and fetching daughter Lizzie, is slowly dissolving in a culture increasingly hostile to their art and readier to worship the queens of the silly Indian pop cinema.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Closely Watched Trains

I'm reading some of this week's New Yorker online since it hasn't yet arrived in my mail box. Anthony Lane reviews a new movie with an important role for a train. The Darjeeling Limited seems to be about some American guys who take a train journey across India. Lane goes with a profound question in his opening paragraph.

Can you have a thriving movie culture in a country without enough trains? The decline of the American railroad neatly parallels that of the Hollywood studio system, and something about the train traveller and the moviegoer catches the eye: both are required to sit with their fellow-men, and to start their journey at a particular time, not of their own choosing. Both are left alone, yet their privacy—tinged with dreaminess—is of a very public kind. Set a movie on a train and you get the best of both worlds, for your audience will feel an instant kinship with the souls packed together onscreen. Preston Sturges knew this, as did the Billy Wilder of “Some Like It Hot”; these days, however, the thrill of the ride has shrivelled to a dull metropolitan commute.

He's right about the train/Hollywood parallel. Wasn't the first American movle with a plot
The Great Train Robbery? Let's ask OK, here's an answer:

By Alex (Chicago) - See all my reviews
"Its hard to believe but this film was made more than 100 hundred years ago; it has to be considered to be a technical step forward for its time. The plot is basically a train robbery. It is also the first western. This was a stepping stone for what movies could be,

D. W. Griffith directed this historic movie. Anyway-

I love the train movie genre. Especially memorable are
The Lady Vanishes, Night Train to Munich, The Twentieth Century, The Great Train Robbery, Runaway Train, 3:10 to Yuma, Strangers on a Train,
and the great Marlene in Shanghai Express. . . .

Stage coaches aren't bad, either.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Should cats eat kibble, canned, or mice?

From dawlishgal

Following snatched from comments to Norah Ephron's column today in the HuffPost:

Our experience with kibble and our cat:

When we took him in for his kitten checkup, the vet told us that she gives her own cat canned cat food only on (get this) CHRISTMAS Eve...the rest of the time it makes do with kibble.

We felt guilty while we continued to feed ours a mixed diet of kibble and canned food, and ,when he developed chronic constipation and blockages that almost killed him, we blamed ourselves for not following the vet's advice.

NOW, a week after the latest episode and thirteen hundred bucks poorer, we have been told the whole thinking on cat diet has changed, and the theory is that now cats and dogs ought to be eating what they would eat in the wild (vermin?). Some wily petfood manufacturer is bringing out a version of THAT kind of natural food at a price higher than for human food. At the same time there is a new kind of digestion-problems kibble that goes for 10 bucks for a little bag. It is almost impossible to know what to do. And the cat would be better off eating MICE, forgawdssakes!

Friday, October 5, 2007

Comfortable Cats in St. Petersburg

From the BBC today:
Go for the best in news each day

Maria Khaltunen with cat
Maria Khaltunen sees the cats as part of the palace traditions

Hermitage palace is cat's whiskers
By James Rodgers
BBC News, St Petersburg

The Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Russia, is famous as the palace of Empress Catherine the Great.

The greatness of its cats is the less well-known side of its astonishing story.

They have been here since the 18th Century. Fed up with rodents running through the palace, Empress Elizabeth sent out a decree that the best ratters in Russia should be sent to St Petersburg. The first to respond are thought to have come from the city of Kazan - then apparently famous for the rat-catching skills of its cats.

The cats survived the Napoleonic wars. They lived through the revolution of 1917. Their royal masters, Tsar Nicholas II and his family, died in a hail of Bolshevik bullets the following year.

As Russia turned communist, the cats kept their regal home.

They only disappeared during World War II. Hitler's armies laid siege to St Petersburg, then known by its Soviet name, Leningrad. Hundreds of thousands of people perished as for 900 days, the Nazis tried to strangle the life out of the city.

The most important items in the Hermitage collection were removed to storage in the Ural mountains, far from the front line. The museum's cellars became bomb shelters.

Winter shelter

In peacetime, a new generation of cats was welcomed to the palatial surroundings their predecessors had made home.

Now, two full-time employees take care of them. Cosy corners of the Hermitage's cellars are their shelter in the depths of the icy Russian winter.

They are no longer chosen for their ability to catch rats. Poison has taken that job away from them. They have come here from the streets, and the Hermitage is happy for them to move on to good homes, where they can be found.

Officially, there are 50 of them. Museum staff make voluntary contributions to pay for their upkeep.

They are considered so important that they even have their own press secretary. Maria Khaltunen combines that role with her job as assistant to the museum's director.

While we spoke, one of her charges did its best to leap from her arms.

"We like them," she explained. "And all our staff decided to keep up this tradition: to have the cats, and to like them."

Office antics

They may have retired from rat-catching, but a trip to the Hermitage's accounts department shows the cats are still there when a mouse is around. But these days, that's a computer mouse.

To be honest, the cats are more likely to be getting in the way than helping. Some have made their home with the book-keepers. They lounge across desks or curl up to snooze in open boxes of printer paper.

They are not allowed in the galleries. But that does not mean they are cut off from the artistic atmosphere. Some of them appear perfectly at home among the statues in the Hermitage's gardens and courtyards - even occasionally seeming to strike poses copied from the classical-era art which surrounds them.

Story from BBC NEWS:

Published: 2007/10/05 10:55:48 GMT

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

On The Loss Of A Cat -- Human-Animal Bonding : Excerpted From Natalie Angier's Article In The Times Today)

"A couple of weeks ago, while I was out of town on business, our cat, Cleo, died of liver failure. My husband and daughter buried her in the backyard, not far from the grave of our other cat, Manny, who had died just a few months earlier of mouth cancer.

"Cleo was almost 16 years old, she’d been sick, and her death was no surprise. Still, when I returned to a home without cats, without pets of any sort, I was startled by my grief — not so much its intensity as its specificity.

"It was very different from the catastrophic grief I’d felt when I was 19 and my father died, and all sense, color and flooring dropped from my days. This was a sorrow of details, of minor rhythms and assumptions that I hadn’t really been aware of until, suddenly, they were disrupted or unmet. Hey, I’m opening the door to the unfinished attic now. Doesn’t a cat want to try dashing inside to roll around in the loose wads of insulation while I yell at it to get out of there?

"I’ve just dumped a pile of clean laundry on the bed and I’m starting to fold it. Why aren’t the cats jumping up for a quick sit? Don’t they know everything is still warm?

"We expect the bonds between children and parents, or between lovers or close friends, to be fierce and complex, and that makes them easy to understand. We expect the bonds between people and their pets to be simple and innocent, an antidote to human judgment and the fog of human speech, and that can make the bond paradoxically harder to track or explain. How do we feel about the nonhuman animals whose company we crave? We think we know. Our pet is our “best friend,” a “member of the family,” a surrogate child for the adults, in loco parentis for the kids and the best possible pillow for whoever has first dibs.

. . ..

"We love our pets and we love the idea of pets, of reaching beyond the parochial barriers of the human race to commune with other species. When Alex the African gray parrot, renowned for his ability to communicate, do simple arithmetic and describe objects by their color, size, shape and material, died last month of cardiovascular disease at the age of 31, his obituary appeared everywhere, and Irene Pepperberg, the scientist who had trained Alex since 1977, was flooded with condolences.

“Alex touched so many people,” Dr. Pepperberg, a lecturer and research associate at Harvard University, said in a telephone interview. “He broke all preconceived notions of what it means to be a bird brain.” She admitted to feeling devastated. “There’s a parrot-size hole in my life,” she said.

. . .

"Marc Hauser, professor of psychology at Harvard and author of “Wild Minds: What Animals Really Think,” says ambivalence and tension have long been woven into our feelings about animals. “On the one hand, we feel a connection to other animals and we can’t imagine a world where we’re the only species on the planet,” he said. “On the other hand, we’re always trying to show that we’re not animals. We’re like them, yet we don’t want to be like them.”

"Dr. Hauser traces this tension to self-defense. We use animals, and we want to feel justified in using animals. We eat their muscles for meat, flay their hides for shoes and accessories, inject them with experimental vaccines, genetically engineer them into grotesque morphologies to study human diseases. This requires a certain mental distance.

"So we adore our pets and lavish time and money on them. Annual pet expenditures in this country have doubled in the last decade and are now more than $40 billion a year. And then we scold ourselves for our foolish fiscal priorities.

"We adore our pets and can come to identify with them so deeply that we attribute to them some truly daffy notions, like the radio listener who called in a comment to Colin Allen, a philosopher and cognitive scientist at Indiana University’s Center for the Integrative Study of Animal Behavior. “She wanted to tell me about how her cat had very gingerly brought in an injured bird to show her, as though to say, It’s hurt, please take care of it,” Dr. Allen said. “I suggested there might be other interpretations for her cat’s behavior.”

"Yes, we love our pets and anthropomorphize them to the point where we think our cat might enjoy wearing the mouse hat Halloween costume now on sale at And still we abandon difficult pets, and shelters euthanize some 10 million pets a year.

"I understand the ambivalence of the human-animal bond. I loved my cats, and I miss them, but I resent them, too, for showing me what a creature of small habits I am, and for reminding me that even love is not enough. Life, like the laundry, will always cool down."

The article gives helpful sources to tap for further reading. When our twin foundling kittens who grew up and became seventeen years of age, their inevitable death stunned me. Missing them was everything. The house was empty and sterile without them. No furry faces welcomed us home at the end of an outing. Their pictures on a shelf helped, but not enough Then two 15 week old rambunctious pitch-black kittens and a grey and white 18 month year old changed everything. Life came back again.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Sick Kitty Gets Holistic Vet Treatment

A friend writes about the health of her cat. Kitty hadn't been eating, was listless, and when he did eat a little, he brought the food back up again. A visit to the vet emergency did little good, and so my last week my friend decided to take kitty to a local holistic vet. She reported as follows:

"Just thought I'd tell you that I went to see the holistic vet yesterday. A whole little world there--in that little town. Kind of interesting. The vet was a small, trim woman in her 40s, soft spoken and with a tendency to hum to herself. She runs the office entirely on her own, and our first appointment was an hour long. (Actually, it may have run a bit longer than that.) She spent the time sitting on the floor with my cat and gave him a typical hands-on examination and concluded that there could be as many as five or six possible diagnoses, none of which we could be exactly sure about without an endoscopy (which he can't have because of his heart disease). So we decided on a food change and some supplements designed to heal the stomach naturally. They won't interfere with his heart meds from the cardiologist and can't they hurt him in any way, so why not? She sent me a few doors down to an animal, natural food store to choose some organic, all-meat food. It's an animal complex in this little strip mall. There's dog training and doggy-daycare as well as the vet and the food store."

Thought I'd blog this in case someone would like to know that there are holistic vets out there who approach a sick animal's health problem a little differently. This particular vet often employs Chinese acupuncture techniques.