The Twelve Tasks of the Festive Season — Bonus Entry

Der Weltensammler - Ilija Trojanow  Collector of Worlds, the - Iliya Troyanov

I blacked out my card on Dec. 19 using the “activity” entry for the Kwanzaa square, but since thereafter I did read a book set (partially) in Africa, too, here’s my “bonus entry” post … sorry for reporting in belatedly; blame it on BookLikes posting issues and a surfeit of things going on all at the same time in my life at present. 😦

Not that it still seems to matter greatly to begin with, alas … (sigh).

Der Weltensammler (The Collector of Worlds) is a novelized biography of 19th century polymath and explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton, who traveled widely in India, the Middle East and Africa, visiting Mecca (disguised as an Arab) and seeking — partially successfully, though he didn’t know it — the source of the Nile (he did make it to Lake Victoria, but failed to confirm that the Nile actually does originate from there).  He is best remembered today for his translation of The 1001 Nights.

Interesting, though quite obviously largely fictitious insights into a fascinating life, and a voyage back through time to the Orient, Africa, and British Empire of the 19th century.

 

Snow Globes: Reads
Bells: Activities

 

Original post:
ThemisAthena.booklikes.com/post/1512708/the-twelve-tasks-of-the-festive-season-bonus-entry

Merken

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The Twelve Tasks of the Festive Season — Task the Eleventh: The Polar Express

Murder on the Orient Express: Complete & Unabridged (Audiocd) - Agatha Christie 

– Read a book that involves train travel (such as Murder on the Orient Express).

 Well, as it happened I did pick Murder on the Orient Express for this square.  Not that I’m not intimately familiar with the story as such already — it was actually one of the first books by Agatha Christie that I ever read, not to mention watching (and owning) the screen adaptation starring Albert Finney and half of classic Hollywood’s A list.  But I’d never listened to the audio version read by David Suchet, and I am very glad to finally have remedied that now.  Not only is Suchet the obvious choice to read any of Christie’s Poirot novels because his name has practically become synonymous with that of the little Belgian himself — great character actor that he is, he was obviously also having the time of his life with all of the story’s other roles, including those of the women; and particularly so, Mrs. Hubbard, whose interpretation by Suchet also gives the listener more than a minor glance at the fun that recent London audiences must have been having watching him appear as Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde’s Importance of Being Earnest (drag and all).

 A superb reading of one of Agatha Christie’s very best mysteries and one of my all-time favorite books.  Bravo, Mr. Suchet!

 

 

Original post:
ThemisAthena.booklikes.com/post/1498329/the-twelve-tasks-of-the-festive-season-task-the-eleventh-the-polar-express

GOOD MORNING, VIETNAM

Wakeup Call, Williams Style

1965 was the year when, as a result of the Congressional Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, American military buildup in Vietnam began in earnest, and troop strength grew by a factor of no less than eight; from 23,000 at the beginning of the year to roughly 184,000 at the end. 1965 was also the year when a new AFN DJ arrived in Saigon, which over the course of that same year would transform itself from a sleepy French-Vietnamese colonial town into the nightmare it has since come to be in the memory of countless vets.

The new DJ in question was Adrian Cronauer; fresh from an assignment in Greece.

While the idea for a fictionalized account of his Vietnam experience was Cronauer’s own, fueled by the popularity of M*A*S*H, the script for Barry Levinson’s Good Morning Vietnam was ultimately penned by screenwriter Mitch Markowitz with only some input from Cronauer himself, who has since gone out of his way to underline the fictional nature of the account and stress that his true stance was not so much anti-military as “anti-stupidity.” Thus, the film has to be taken with a considerable grain of salt; both as far as the portrayal of 1960s’ armed forces radio and as far as the movie’s plot is concerned. But that doesn’t make it any less poignant; nor does it take away one iota of Robin Williams‘s performance as Cronauer: Indeed, the role of an irreverent, unstoppable DJ seemed tailor-made for Williams, who had burst onto the scene with his inimitable brand of lightning-quick ad-libbing ten years earlier in Mork & Mindy – and of course, all of Cronauer’s hilarious broadcasts in this movie are ad-libbed, too.

The film follows Adrian Cronauer from his arrival in Saigon in the spring of 1965 to his forced departure about a half year later (although the real Cronauer in fact stayed for a year and was not forced out but left when his regular tour of duty was over). While a comedy, and although not trying to be anywhere near the “definitive” take on Vietnam, it does take a close look at the year when the conflict escalated and, in particular, at the resulting toll on human relations. Robin Williams earned his first of to date four well-deserved Academy Award nominations for this role (the others were for Dead Poets Society [1989], The Fisher King [1991] and Good Will Hunting [1997], the movie for which he finally scored on Oscar night). And in his inimitable way he provides pointed comic relief not only over the microphone but also, and always with a unique ear for the situation’s mood, whenever the script would otherwise threaten to veer off into melodrama; such as after his discovery that his Vietnamese friend Tuan is actually a Viet Cong fighter named Phan Duc To (“It’s unbelievable. Five months in Saigon, and my best friend turns out to be a V.C. This will not look good on a resume!!”); and in scenes that would otherwise be burdened with a bit too much cliché and / or deliberately funny writing, such as the conference after Cronauer’s first broadcast, where Bruno Kirby (Lieutenant Hauk) gets to deliver such gems as “Don’t say that the weather is the same all the time here, because it’s not; in fact, it’s two degrees cooler today than yesterday” and “I hate the fact that you people never salute me – I’m a lieutenant, and I would like salutes occasionally. That’s what being a higher rank is all about.” Even if Kirby himself gets to make up for these a little later in the same scene with the comment “We are not going to escalate [Vietnam into] a whole war so we can get a big name comedian” (Bob Hope who, as the men have informed him, does not “play police actions”), it takes Williams‘s/Cronauer’s final weaving of the lieutenant’s preferred abbreviations into a single sentence to truly put the finishing touch on the scene.

Although Good Morning Vietnam is clearly first and foremost a star vehicle for Robin Williams, he is joined by an outstanding supporting cast, including inter alia, besides Bruno Kirby, Forest Whitaker as Cronauer’s good-natured sidekick PFC Montesque Garlick, the ever-reliable J.T. Walsh as his second great nemesis, Sergeant Major Dickerson (whose stock character of a straight-laced white middle class guy would probably not have come off convincingly as a villain vis-à-vis anybody but Robin Williams) and, in particular, Tung Thanh Tran as Tuan and Chintara Sukapatana as his sister Trinh: Her plea with Cronauer not (even) to seek her friendship, let alone more, because for her such an association with a man (particularly a foreigner) is culturally unacceptable, is one of the movie’s most quietly powerful scenes. Exceptional is further Peter Sova’s cinematography, which convincingly captures the daily realities of a city and a country on the brink of an all-out war, and is brilliantly complimented by the editing, which in turn also uses the soundtrack – more or less a mid-1960s “greatest hits” compilation – to maximum effect; be it in framing daily military routine, the soldiers’ enjoyment of Cronauer’s style of broadcasting or combat action: Indeed, hardly any image could make a more powerful statement on the cruel absurdity of war than seeing a village blown up to the tune of Louis Armstrong’s It’s a Wonderful World.

Thus, Good Morning Vietnam is in its own way as poignant a wakeup call as any other movie about Vietnam – or about World War II, or any other war for that matter. It deservedly netted the Political Film Society’s 1989 Peace Award, in addition to Robin Williams‘s Oscar nomination and his Golden Globe and American Comedy awards, as well as the movie’s ASCAP soundtrack award. And it certainly bears revisiting – for its overall quality, for Robin Williams‘s performance, and also for lessons learned and deserving never to be forgotten.

 

Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: Touchstone Pictures (1987)
  • Director: Barry Levinson
  • Producers: Larry Brezner & Mark Johnson
  • Screenplay: Mitch Markowitz
  • Music: Alex North
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: Peter Sova
Cast
  • Robin Williams: Adrian Cronauer
  • Tung Thanh Tran: Tuan
  • Chintara Sukapatana: Trinh
  • Forest Whitaker: Edward Garlick
  • Bruno Kirby: Lieutenant Steven Hauk
  • J.T. Walsh: Sergeant Major Dickerson
  • Robert Wuhl: Marty Lee Dreiwitz
  • Noble Willingham: General Taylor
  • Richard Edson: Private Abersold
  • Juney Smith: Phil McPherson
  • Richard Portnow: Dan ‘The Man’ Levitan
  • Floyd Vivino: Eddie Kirk
  • Cu Ba Nguyen: Jimmy Wah

 

Major Awards and Honors

Golden Globe Awards
(Hollywood Foreign Press Association) (1988)
  • Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture, Comedy or Musical: Robin Williams
Political Film Society (USA) ( 1989)
  • Peace Award
  • Special Award
American Comedy Awards (1988)
  • Funniest Actor in a Motion Picture (Leading Role): Robin Williams
Grammy Awards (USA) (1989)
  • Best Comedy Recording: Robin Williams
ASCAP Film and Television Music Awards (1989)
  • Top Box Office Films: Alex North

 

Links

 

Summer Splurges (AKA: Be Good to Yourself)

The Colour of Poison: A Sebastian Foxley Medieval Mystery (Volume 1) - Toni MountWars of the Roses - Charles RossLast White Rose: The Secret Wars of the Tudors - Desmond SewardBlood Sisters: The Women Behind the Wars of the Roses - Sarah GristwoodMary Tudor: The First Queen - Linda Porter

Mary Tudor: Princess, Bastard, Queen - Anna WhitelockThe Sugar Planter's Daughter - Sharon MaasThe Princes of Ireland - Edward RutherfurdThe Rebels of Ireland - Edward RutherfurdThe Chronicles of Narnia CD Box Set: The Chronicles of Narnia CD Box Set - C.S. Lewis, Kenneth Branagh

Largely inspired by Samantha Wilcoxson’s recommendations following up on my read of her books Plantagenet Princess, Tudor Queen and Faithful Traitor – as well as looking forward to book 3 of her Tudor Women trilogy – I’ve been on a minor shopping spree lately. Not all of these are Samantha’s recommendations, but that’s the way book browsing goes … one thing leads to another!

  • Toni Mount: The Colour of Poison – actually ordered already before my exchange with Samantha on which books she recommends in connection with her own novels, though another recommendation of hers, too; what a pity I probably won’t be receiving it before the end of its “book of the month” status in More Historical Than Fiction.
  • Charles Ross: The Wars of the Roses – though I’ve already got Trevor Royle’s book on the same subject, but it can’t hurt to get another one just for comparison’s sake;
  • Desmond Seward: The Last White Rose – since, after all, the Yorks didn’t just die out all at once together with Richard III at Bosworth in 1485;
  • Sarah Gristwood: Blood Sisters, The Women Behind the Wars of the Roses – since women played an important part during that period and it’s time we finally took note of them … and not just Margaret of Anjou, either (which is why Samantha’s books on Elizabeth of York and Margaret Pole are such a welcome read);
  • Linda Porter: Mary Tudor, The First Queen – since there’s more to Mary I than is hidden behind her epithet “Bloody Mary”;
  • Anna Whitelock: Mary Tudor, Princess, Bastard, Queen – ditto (and two books are always better than one, see above)

 … and while I was at it, I also did a bit of wish list cleanup, ordering:

  • Sharon Maas: The Sugar Planter’s Daughter (book 2 of her Winnie Cox trilogy; fresh from the publisher’s press);
  • Edward Rutherfurd: The Princes of Ireland and The Rebels of Ireland;
  • David Suchet: Poirot and Me (since my reviews of some of the Poirot dramatizations starring Suchet are up next for copying over to my WordPress blog)
  • … and then I also found a dirt cheap (used, but near new) offer of the Chronicles of Narnia audiobook set read by Derek Jacobi, Kenneth Branagh, Patrick Stewart, Michael York, Alex Jennings, Lynn Redgrave and Jeremy Northam – which I of course had to have as well.

 And look, the first lovely books already made it to their new home, too:

 

But anyway, I obviously also needed to make space on my wish list for all the other books I found when following up on Samantha’s recommendations:

  • Lisa Hilton: Queens Consort, England’s Medieval Queens (which I hope is going to live up to Helen Castor’s She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth I);
  • Dan Jones: The Hollow Crown (since I’ve already got his earlier book on the Plantagenets …);
  • Charles Ross: Richard III (by all accounts still the standard biography);
  • Chris Skidmore: Richard III (the most recent incarnation of Richard III biographies);
  • Amy Licence: Richard III, the Road to Leicester (I guess there goes my resolution not to give in to the publicity craze of the recent[ish] discovery of his bones);
  • Amy Licence: Elizabeth of York, Forgotten Tudor Queen (and really, I swear it was this book and the RIII bio by Charles Ross that led me to Licence’s book on RIII in the first place);
  • Alison Weir: Elizabeth of York, the First Tudor Queen (one of Samantha’s major “go-to” books for background information on Elizabeth; also, I own and rather like Weir’s bio of Eleanor of Aquitaine);
  • Hazel Pierce: Margaret Pole, 1473-1541, Loyalty, Lineage and Leadership (on which Samantha says she relied substantially in writing Faithful Traitor) and
  • Susan Higginbotham: Margaret Pole (brand new and due out in August 2016).

And then … well, there’s this absolutely gorgeous and super-nice tea and spice store in Frankfurt that my best friend and I discovered when I was living in Frankfurt way back in 2003.  Shelves crammed with goodies from all over the world and an amazing staff … even after I moved to Bonn, we just kept going there; and we still try to make it down there at least once or twice a year.  So last Saturday we decided another splurge was overdue, took to the road – and returned home late in the afternoon laden with delicacies.  This was my share of the bounty:

  • A small bag of Nanhu Da Shan Qinxin Oolong (the prize catch of last Saturday’s shopping trip; and yes, they do actually let you try all of their products in their store);
  • * A foursome of Kusmi tea blends (Kashmir tchai, ginger lemon green, and a double serving of spicy chocolate);
  • One of their homemade rice & spice mixes (in this instance, a blend of Indian basmati rice with currants, cashew nuts, coconut flakes, lemon pepper, cinnamon, sea salt, cardamom, ginger, and pieces of dried mango, apricot, papaya, and cranberries, going by the fanciful name Maharani Rice … one of my absolute favorites);
  • A bottle of Stokes Sweet Chilli Sauce (my kitchen just isn’t complete without this stuff, it goes on practically everything);
  • A bottle of Belberry Spicy Mango Ketchup (new to me, tried it in the store and instantly loved it);
  • A duo of Sal de Ibiza (green pepper and lemon, and ginger and lemon grass);
  • A lidded Chinese dragon tea mug that will go well with the two (differently-colored) mugs in the same style that I’ve already got
  • … and a collection of their very own recipes, all of which they also serve up (though obviously not all at the same time) for tasting purposes in their store.; this particular collection being recipes created by a charming lady from Sri Lanka named Rajitha who has been part of their team since practically forever.

 Alright, so I guess I did splurge.  In my defense, though, I’ll mention that I won’t be able to travel at all this year, nor actually take a whole lot of vacation time or other time off work, so I’m having to make to with what’s available by way of compensation … and is there any better compensation than books and food?

INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE

Dies Irae, Dies Doloris …

“Libera me, Domine, de vitae aeterna” – “Free me, Lord, from eternal life”: If a movie begins with a choir and a boy soprano singing these words, in a requiem’s style and overlaying the camera’s sweeping move over nightly San Francisco bay, zooming in on a Victorian building’s top-floor window after having followed the life on the street below like a hunter follows its prey – if a movie begins like this, you know you’re not looking at your average flick, whatever its subject. (And if the first thing you catch is the Latin phrase’s grammatical mistake, this is probably not your kind of movie to begin with).

Much-discussed even before its release, due not least to Anne Rice’s temporary withdrawal of support and her no less sensational subsequent 180-degree turn, Neil Jordan’s adaptation of the Vampire Chronicles‘ first part, based on Rice’s own screenplay, is a sumptuous production awash in luminous colors, magnificent period décor and costumes, rich fabrics, heavy crystal, elegant silverware and gallons of deeply scarlet blood, supremely photographed by Phillippe Rousselot, with a constant undercurrent of sensuality and seduction; an audiovisual orgy substantiated by one of recent film history’s most ingenious scores (by Elliot Goldenthal). Although the book only gained notoriety after the publication of its sequel The Vampire Lestat – followed in short order by the Chronicles‘ third installment, The Queen of the Damned –, by the time this movie was produced, Rice had acquired a large and loyal fan base, who would have been ready to tear it to shreds had it failed to meet their expectations. That this was not unanimously the case is in and of itself testimony to Neil Jordan’s considerable achievement (only underscored by the botched 2002 realization of Queen of the Damned). Sure, some decry the plot changes vis-à-vis the novel and the fact that some of the protagonists (particularly Louis and Armand) look different from Rice’s description. But others have embraced the movie wholeheartedly; praising it for remaining faithful to the fundamentalities of Rice’s story and for its production values as such. I find myself firmly in the latter corner; indeed, in some respects I consider this one of the rare movies that are superior to their literary originals – primarily because the story’s two main characters, Louis and Lestat, gain considerably in stature and complexity as compared to Rice’s book.

While both film and novel are narrated by Louis (Brad Pitt), giving an interview to a reporter (Christian Slater) in the hope of achieving some minimal atonement for 200 years of sin and guilt, and while Lestat (Tom Cruise) appears on screen barely half the movie’s total running time, Lestat is much more of a central character than in Rice’s novel; and vastly more interesting. For Anne Rice’s Lestat only comes into his own in the Chronicles‘ second part, which is named for him and where we truly learn to appreciate him as the vampire world’s aristocratic, arrogant, wicked, intelligent and unscrupulous “brat prince,” who although completely lacking regret for any of his actions nevertheless shows occasional glimpses of caring, even if he would never admit thereto. This, however, is exactly the movie’s Lestat; not the comparatively uninformed and, all things considered, even somewhat brutish creature of Rice’s first novel. It is no small feat on Tom Cruise’s part to have accomplished this; and in my mind his portrayal has completely eclipsed the character’s original conception, which was reportedly based on Rutger Hauer’s Captain Navarre in Ladyhawke.

Similarly, while every bit as guilt-ridden as the character created by Anne Rice , Brad Pitt’s Louis regains more inner strength – and more quickly so – than the narrator of Rice’s book, rendering him more of an even foil for Lestat, and equally lending greater credibility to his initial selection as Lestat’s companion, as well as to his actions to ensure his and Claudia’s escape to Europe, and his later decision not to stay with Armand. (Indeed, Louis’s and Armand’s separation after the burning of the Theatre of the Vampires makes perfect sense in the movie’s context; it would have undercut both characters’, but especially Louis’s credibility had they gone on to share years of companionship, as they do in the book.)

Kirsten Dunst’s Claudia was not only this movie’s biggest discovery – not surprisingly, in an interview given a few years later and included on the movie’s DVD, Dunst called this “the most prominent role” of her career so far –: She, too, embodies the novel’s child vampire to absolute perfection; capturing her eternally childlike features as well as her Lolitaesque seductiveness and the ruthless killer hidden under her doll-like appearance. Doubtlessly furthest from the novel’s character is Antonio Banderas’s powerful and charismatic Armand: But while I do somewhat miss Rice’s auburn-haired “Botticelli angel,” I always had a problem imagining him as the leader of the Paris coven, in control even of the quicksilverish Santiago (marvelously portrayed by Stephen Rea in one of his most overtly theatrical performances). Here, too, the movie – if anything – gives the story greater credibility; although it’s admittedly hard to reconcile with parts of the Chronicles‘ later installments, particularly Armand’s own biography.

In interviews, Neil Jordan and Brad Pitt particularly have mentioned the emotional strain that this movie put on all its participants; due its almost exclusively nightly shooting schedule, and even more so because of its incessant exploration of guilt, damnation and, literally, hell on earth. Anne Rice’s vampires truly are the ultimate outsiders; no longer part of human society, they feed on it, can neither be harmed by sickness nor by methods the world has taken for granted ever since Bram Stoker’s Dracula (which are in fact merely “the vulgar fictions of a demented Irishman,” as Louis explains, simultaneously amused and contemptuous) and are thus, if not killed by fire and/or beheading, condemned to walk the earth forever, without any hope of redemption. It is primarily this element which has given Rice’s novels their lasting appeal, and which is perfectly rendered in Jordan’s adaptation. I’m still not sure I’d ever want to meet them in person, though …

 

Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: Geffen Pictures (1994)
  • Director: Neil Jordan
  • Producers: David Geffen & Stephen Woolley
  • Screenplay: Anne Rice
  • Based on a novel by: Anne Rice
  • Music: Elliot Goldenthal
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: Philippe Rousselot
  • Production Design: Dante Ferretti
Cast

Brad Pitt: Louis
Tom Cruise: Lestat
Christian Slater: Malloy
Kirsten Dunst: Claudia
Antonio Banderas: Armand
Stephen Rea: Santiago
Thandie Newton: Yvette
Indra Ové: New Orleans Whore
Helen McCrory: 2nd Whore
Roger Lloyd Pack: Piano Teacher
George Kelly: Dollmaker
Sara Stockbridge: Estelle
Domiziana Giordano: Madeleine
Louis Lewis-Smith: Mortal Boy

Major Awards and Honors

ASCAP Awards (1995)
  • Top Box Office Films: Elliot Goldenthal
BAFTA Awards (1995)
  • Best Cinematography: Philippe Rousselot
  • Best Production Design: Dante Ferretti

 

Links

CASABLANCA

You must remember this …

Aaaahhh … Bogey. AFI’s No. 1 film star of the 20th century. Hollywood’s original noir anti-hero, epitome of the handsome, cynical and oh-so lonesome wolf (with “Casablanca”‘s Rick Blaine alone, one of the Top 5 guys on the AFI’s list of greatest 20th century film heroes); looking unbeatably cool in white dinner jacket or trenchcoat and fedora alike, a glass of whiskey in his hand and a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. Endowed with a legendary aura several times larger than his real life stature, and still admired by scores of women wishing they had been born 50+ years earlier, preferably somewhere in California and to parents connected with the movie business, so as to have at least a marginal chance of meeting him.

Triple-Oscar-winning “Casablanca,” directed by Michael Curtiz, was and still is without question Bogart’s greatest career-defining moment, the movie on which his legendary status is grounded more than on any other of his multiple successes. The film’s story is based on Murray Burnett and Joan Alison’s play “Everybody Comes to Rick’s,” renamed by Warner Brothers in order to tag onto the success of the studio’s 1938 hit “Algiers” (starring Charles Boyer and Hedy Lamarr). Building on the success of 1941’s “The Maltese Falcon” and further expanding Bogart’s increasingly complex on-screen personality, it added a romantic quality which had heretofore been missing; eventually making this the AFI’s Top 20th century love story (even before the No. 2 “Gone With the Wind”), while second only to “Citizen Kane” on the AFI’s overall list of Top 100 20th century movies; with a unique, inimitable blend of drama, passion, humor, exotic North African atmosphere, patriotism, unforgettable score (courtesy of Herman Hupfeld’s “As Time Goes By,” Max Steiner, and Louis Kaufman’s violin) and an all-star cast, consisting besides Bogart of Ingrid Bergman (Ilsa), Paul Henreid (Victor Laszlo), Claude Rains (Captain Renault), Dooley Wilson (who, a drummer by trade, had to fake his piano playing as Rick’s friend Sam), Conrad Veidt (Major Strasser), Sydney Greenstreet (Ferrari) and Peter Lorre (Ugarte). And the movie’s countless famous one-liners have long attained legendary status in their own right …

Looking at this movie’s and its stars’ almost mythical fame, it is difficult to imagine that, produced at the height of the studio system era, it was originally just one of the roughly 50 movies released over the course of one year. But mass production didn’t equal low quality; on the contrary, the great care given to all production values, from script-writing to camera work, editing, score and the stars’ presentation in the movies themselves and in their trailers, was at least partly responsible for its lasting success. In fact, the screenplay for “Casablanca” was constantly rewritten even throughout the filming process, to the point that particularly Ingrid Bergman was extremely worried because she was unsure whether at the end she (Ilsa) would leave Casablanca with Henreid’s Victor Laszlo or stay there with Humphrey Bogart (Rick).

Little needs to be said about the movie’s story. After the onset of WWII, Casablanca has become a point of refuge for Jews and other desperate souls from all corners of Europe, fleeing the old world with the hope of building a new life in America. Unofficial center of Casablanca’s society is Rick’s “Café Americain,” where gamblers, refugees, French police, Nazi troops, thieves, swindlers and soldiers of fortune come together on a nightly basis, to make connections, conduct their shady business, or simply forget the uncertainty of their fate for a few precious hours. And presiding over this mixed and colorful society is Rick Blaine, expatriate American without any hope of returning to the United States himself (for reasons never fully explained), officially not interested in politics but only the flourishing of his business, but soft-hearted underneath the hard shell of his cynicism. From Rick’s perspective, everything is going just swell and the way it is meant to be: he is reasonably well-respected, has a good working relationship with Captain Renault, the local representative of the Vichy government (based on mutual respect as much as on the fact that Renault is a guaranteed winner at Rick’s gambling tables and, by way of reciprocation, turns a blind eye to whatever less-than-squeaky-clean transactions Rick may be tolerating in his café, always ready to have his police round up “the usual suspects” instead of the truly guilty party of a crime if that person’s continued freedom promises to be more profitable); and although aware of Rick’s not quite so apolitical past, the Germans are leaving him alone as well, as long as he stays out of politics now. Until … well, until famous underground resistance leader and recent concentration camp-escapee Victor Laszlo and his wife Ilsa walk into Rick’s café, into his place “of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world” – and with one blow, administered to the melancholy tunes of “As Time Goes By,” the carefully maintained equilibrium of his little world comes crashing down around him.

Not only to Bogart and Bergman fans all over the world, “Casablanca” is film history’s all-time crowning achievement, a “must” in every movie lover’s collection, and one of the few films that truly deserve the title “classic.” If it is not yet included in your home collection, that is an omission that ought to be remedied sooner rather than later.

 

Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: Warner Bros. (1942)
  • Director: Michael Curtiz
  • Executive Producer: Jack L. Warner
  • Screenplay: Julius J. Epstein / Philip G. Epstein / Howard Koch / Casey Robinson (uncredited)
  • Based on a play by: Murray Burnett and Joan Alison
  • Music: Max Steiner
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: Arthur Edeson
Cast
  • Humphrey Bogart: Rick Blaine
  • Ingrid Bergman: Ilsa Lund
  • Paul Henreid: Victor Laszlo
  • Claude Rains: Captain Louis Renault
  • Conrad Veidt: Major Heinrich Strasser
  • Sydney Greenstreet: Signor Ferrari
  • Peter Lorre: Ugarte
  • S.Z. Sakall: Carl (as S.K. Sakall)
  • Madeleine Lebeau: Yvonne (as Madeleine LeBeau)
  • Dooley Wilson: Sam

 

Major Awards

Academy Awards (1944)
  • Best Picture: Hal B. Wallis
  • Best Director: Michael Curtiz
  • Best Writing, Screenplay: Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch
American Film Institute (AFI)
  • Top 25 Stars (male) – No. 1 (Humphrey Bogart)
  • Top 100 Love Stories – No. 1
  • Top 100 American Films – No. 2
  • Top 100 Movie Songs – No. 2 (“As Time Goes By”)
  • Top 25 Stars (female) – No. 4 (Ingrid Bergman)
  • Top 50 Heroes – No. 4 (Rick Blaine)
  • Top 100 Thrillers – No. 37
  • Top 100 Movie Quotes – 5th: “Here’s looking at you, kid.”  (Rick Blaine)
  • Top 100 Movie Quotes – 20th: “Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” (Rick Blaine)
  • Top 100 Movie Quotes –28th: “Play it, Sam. Play ‘As Time Goes By.'” (Ilsa Lund)
  • Top 100 Movie Quotes – 32nd: “Round up the usual suspects.” (Captain Louis Renault)
  • Top 100 Movie Quotes – 43rd: “We’ll always have Paris.” (Rick Blaine)
  • Top 100 Movie Quotes – 67th: “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” (Rick Blaine)

 

Links

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Vladislav Tamarov: Afghanistan – A Russian Soldier’s Story

Afghanistan: A Russian Soldier's Story - Vladislav TamarovBoy soldiers in a war that turned out to be a “mistake”

Growing up in Germany and learning about World War II in school and from my parents and grandparents, among the things that impressed me most – that I just couldn’t get out of my mind – were the pictures of those boys drafted into Adolf Hitler’s “Volkssturm” (literally: “People’s Storm”); the pictures of those 16-, 18- and 19-year-old boys torn out of school before they had even had a chance to graduate, and turned into cannon fodder; the pictures of those eyes staring out of faces grown old long before their time. I have seen those same eyes and those same faces again in Vladislav Tamarov’s photo-journalistic report on his experiences as a Russian soldier in Afghanistan, subtitled simply “A Russian Soldier’s Story.”

There is, for example, Sergei, the author’s best friend in Afghanistan, who had his leg shattered by an exploding bullet – and so much more than just his leg was shattered with it. Then there is Sasha, who wanted to be a pilot and asked his friend Vlad, who was from Leningrad (St. Petersburg), whether his parents could enquire for him about the application procedures for the city’s flight school – and who didn’t even live to receive his answer. There is Aleksei, who walked into a minefield because somebody misread a map. There is Aleksandr, who got killed covering his commanding officer’s body with his chest and who was posthumously awarded the Soviet Union’s highest medal – which was given to his mother, to take the place of her dead son. There is Kravchenko, who went out to check a road with a couple of newcomers and was blown up by a mine – only weeks before he was scheduled to return home. There is Volodya, who couldn’t look into the eyes of other minesweepers returning to camp if he hadn’t gone out with them – and who was also killed only months before his time in Afghanistan was supposed to be over. There is the group picture of Oleg, Renat, Aleksandr, Vladimir and Sergei, taken while they are resting somewhere under a tree – only 14 hours before one of them would be killed by an ambush, 46 days before two more of them would be seriously injured and another one killed, and one year before the last of them would also be killed. And there is Vladislav Tamarov himself, who in 1984, like so many others, suddenly found himself in a boot camp, being trained for a two-year turn of duty in Afghanistan because the Supreme Soviet had proclaimed seven years earlier in the country’s revised constitution that “[t]o serve in the Soviet army is the honorable duty of Soviet citizens” – and ever since the Communist party leaders’ 1979 decision to yield to the “call for help” issued by the communist satellite government in Kabul, that “honorable duty” consisted in “supporting the Afghan revolution.” And so Tamarov was pulled out of university, learned to put on a parachute and jump into the abyss below his plane (a completely useless skill in Afghanistan), learned to kill boys as young as himself in order to survive, was made a minesweeper without any prior training at all; and as a minesweeper, quickly learned that you make a mistake only once – it’s between you and that mine, and there is no second chance. Not ever.

“Afghanistan – A Russian Soldier’s Story” is Vladislav Tamarov’s intensely personal report of his two-year turn of duty in Afghanistan; not a journalist’s or a professional writer’s detached account but the story of one who was there, experienced “what it was like” and came back alive: the human side of the inhumanity of war. The book very much has the feeling of a conversation with the author – in the form of letters, perhaps, or excerpts from a diary shared with the book’s readers. Divided into chapters entitled for the main components of the author’s experience (Boot Camp, Combat Missions, Minesweepers, the Base, etc.), the narrative structure nevertheless frequently alternates between the report of events in Afghanistan and the sensation of being back home again afterwards; thus introducing the reader to the confusing feeling of conflicting audiovisual and sensory associations; and of waking up in the morning and not knowing for a few seconds where you are. Most impressive, however, are Tamarov’s black and white photographs, processed by the author himself (primarily while still “in country”), which convey a darkly acute and poignant sense of Afghanistan, of the Russian soldiers’ scarce encounters with its people, and again and again, of the dangers and desolation of a minesweeper’s life, and his loneliness even in a group of fellow soldiers. The author’s comparisons of his experience with that of American VietNam veterans further add to the complexity of his account, and deepen the understanding that the terror of war is the same, regardless on which side you are fighting. “When you live next to death … you don’t think about it anymore, you just try to encounter it as seldom as possible,” Tamarov writes, and: “We didn’t believe in tomorrow. And we couldn’t forget what had happened yesterday.” Like too many others, Tamarov had to learn to live with this experience for the rest of his life – and it was certainly not made easier by the Soviet Union’s belated admission that the war in Afghanistan was “a mistake.” His story is a powerful reminder that regardless of its motivation, war is never, ever a glorious thing – at least not for those who are sent to fight it; even if they are not as young as the boys who made up the largest contingent of the Soviet Union’s troops in Afghanistan.

 

A Selection of Quotes and Photos:

“When I was drafted into the army in April 1984, I was a nineteen-year-old  boy. The club where they took us was a distribution centre. Officers came there from various military units and picked out the soldiers they wanted. My fate was decided in one minute. A young officer came up to me and asked, “Do you want to serve in the commandos, the Blue Berets?”  Of course I agreed. Two hours later I was on a plane to Uzbekistan (a Soviet republic in Central Asia), where our training base was located.

During the flight, I learned most of the soldiers from this base were sent to Afghanistan. I wasn’t scared. I wasn’t surprised. At that point I didn’t care anymore because I understood that it is impossible to change anything. ‘To serve in the Soviet army is the honourable duty of Soviet citizens” – as it’s written in our Constitution. And no one gives a damn whether you want to fulfil this “honourable duty” or not. But then I didn’t know anything about Afghanistan. Up until 1985, in the press and on television, they told us that Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan were planting trees and building schools and hospitals. And only a few knew that more and more cemeteries were being filled with the graves of eighteen- to twenty-year-old boys. Without the dates of their death, without inscriptions. Only their names on black stone …

At the base we were trained and taught to shoot. We were told that we were being sent to Afghanistan not to plant trees. And as to building schools, we simply wouldn’t have the time …

Three and a half months later, my plane was landing in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan … We were taken to a club on base. A few minutes later, officers started to come by and choose soldiers. Suddenly, an officer with a smiling face and sad eyes burst in noisily. He looked us over with an appraising glance and pointed his finger at me: “Ah ha! I see a minesweeper!” That’s how I became a minesweeper. Ten days later, I went on my first combat mission.”

 

“On August 10, 1984, my plane landed in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. There were no skyscrapers here. The blue domes of the mosques and the faded mountains were the only things rising above the adobe duvals (the houses). The mosques came alive in the evening with multivoiced wailing: the mullahs were calling the faithful to evening prayer. It was such an unusual spectacle that, in the beginning, I used to leave the barracks to listen – the same way that, in Russia, on spring nights, people go outside to listen to the nightingales sing. For me, a nineteen-year-old boy who had lived his whole life in Leningrad, everything about Kabul was exotic: enormous skies – uncommonly starry – occasionally punctured by the blazing lines of tracers. And spread out before you, the mysterious Asian capital where strange people were bustling about like ants on an anthill: bearded men, faces darkend by the sun, in solid-colored wide cotton trousers and long shirts. Their modern jackets, worn over those outfits, looked completely unnatural. And women, hidden under plain dull garments that covered them from head to toe: only their hands visible, holding bulging shopping bags, and their feet, in worn-out shoes or sneakers, sticking out from under the hems.

And somewhere between this odd city and the deep black southern sky, the wailing, beautifully incomprehensible songs of the mullahs. The sounds didn’t contradict each other, but rather, in a polyphonic echo, melted away among the narrow streets. The only thing missing was Scheherazade with her tales of A Thousand and One Arabian Nights … A few days later I saw my first missile attack on Kabul. This country was at war.”

 

“October 1984, Macedonian Column: The column was built by the troops of Alexander the Great many centuries ago. By the same Alexander the Great who said, ‘One can occupy Afghanistan, but one cannot vanquish her.’  This column, visible from Kabul, stood in this same place when Alexander the Great and his troops left Afghanistan; it stood there where our troops came into Afghanistan, and it remained standing even after our troops left Afghanistan.”

 

“This is a page from my Afghan notebook. Here, I wrote down each of my combat missions. First, I wrote down the mission number. If I’d been in the mountains, I circled the number. Then I wrote the last name of the place where we’d been and how many days we were there. Last, I wrote the month and the year. That was my system.”

 

    “Someone once said that a minesweeper makes only two mistakes: the first is when he decides to be one. The second …”

 

May 1985, Djalalabad, from left to right: Oleg (3 shell shocks from explosions) Renat (over 200 days in combat) Alexandr (killed in action 11 hours later) Vladimir (killed in action in June 1986) Sergej (killed in action in June 1985, 6 weeks after this picture was taken).

“We stayed here for only a few hours. We rested and went on.  But the camera snatched this fraction of a second from the eternal flow of time and froze it forever.  At this moment we didn’t know that in a few hours we would fall into an ambush. At this moment, while we were filling our canteens from the stream, we didn’t yet know that we would stay in the mountains for three days without a drop of water.  We didn’t yet know anything …”

 

“There’s nothing I can do to erase the shadow of misery and despair from the eyes looking back at me from the photos.”

 

“Sasha was my friend … Like me, he was 19. But he didn’t come home. He was killed 12 hours after this photo was taken.”

 

“Autumn 1985  Kabul Airfield, Afghanistan: These two soldiers are from my platoon:  A few minutes from this moment, they’ll be flying in helicopters toward the mountains. In forty minutes, people will be shooting at these 19 year old boys. And they will shoot back, and they will kill. That is the law of war: if you don’t kill first, they’ll kill you.  We didn’t invent this law.

But having landed in a war, we have to live by its rules. And the quicker you learn the rules, the longer you have to live by them.  You don’t think about whether you are defending someone’s revolution or defending the ‘southern borders of the motherland’. You simply shoot at those who are shooting at you and at your friend behind you – you shoot at the guys whose mines blew away your friend yesterday.”

 

“I don’t remember his name. I don’t remember where he was from. I remember that our climb into the mountains was grueling, and we were exhausted. He was new. This was one of his first battles and I wanted to encourage him, to cheer him up.”

 

“September 1985, Charikar: These are prisoners. A few hours ago, they were free men in the mountains but now they are here in our camp.  Now they are silently looking us over, while we are silently looking them over.  But it wasn’t always like this …”

 

“I saw houses burned by the Mujahadeen, as well as disfigured bodies of prisoners they’d taken. But I saw other things too: villages destroyed by our shelling and bodies of women, killed by mistake. When you shoot at every rustling in the bushes, there’s no time to think about who’s there. But for an Afghan, it didn’t matter if his wife had been killed intentionally or accidentally. He went into the mountains to see revenge.”

 

“He was holding his right leg, but the blood soaked through his fingers and flowed over his hand onto his sleeve. Intuition had served me again this time: my kick had knocked his automatic out of his grasp a fraction of a second before he could press the trigger.  The second kick was to his face.  It sent him flying about six feet. I set my sights on his head, but something stopped me, one of our guys let out a yelp behind me.  Another bullet whistled by right next to me.  Apparently, this Mujahadeen was not the only one here. Again, I aimed at his head, but something again stopped me.  I saw how his hands were trembling.  I noticed the horror in his eyes.  “He is only a boy!” I thought and pressed the trigger.”

 

 “I never sat like this, in such an open and vulnerable position. I just liked the view from this cliff, and I decided to take this shot especially for my parents: to show how peaceful it was in Afghanistan … but within two seconds I wasn’t anywhere near that rock.”

 

“The photos I took in Afghanistan are lying in front of me. I peer into the faces of those who were with me there and who are so far away from me now, into the faces of those who were dying right next to me and those who were hiding behind my back. I can make these photos larger or smaller, darker or lighter. But what I can’t do is bring back those who are gone forever.”

“We didn’t believe in tomorrow. We we couldn’t forget what had happened yesterday.”

“When you live next to death … you don’t think about it anymore, you just try to encounter it as seldom as possible.”

 

“Once, back home, I decided to count how many days out of my twenty months in Afghanistan I’d been on combat missions. 217 days. And I’m still paying the price for every one of those days.”

“When I came home, I was asked to put my pictures in a photo exhibit at the Cinematography College … my pictures won first prize.  I began to ask myself what I was doing, and why.  A few months after the exhibit, I dropped out of college, left my wife and began to write this book.”

 

“This picture – me standing with an arm around an Afghan government soldier – was one of three photos I gave them for the exhibit. For the exhibit, I gave this photo a short, bogus title: They Defend the Revolution.”

 

“I am asked if I think the war was a just war…how can I answer?  I was a boy born and raised in beautiful Leningrad, a boy who loved his parents and went obediently to school.  A boy who was yanked out of that life and dumped in a strange land where life followed different rules.”

“By 1989, the total number of Vietnam veterans who had died  in violent accidents or by suicide after the war exceeded the total number of American soldiers who died during the war.”

Merken

Lorenz Books: Around the World Cookbook

Around the World in 350+ Recipes

“Holidays in far flung places have increased our awareness of different foods, and restaurants on every street corner now offer dishes that no so long ago would have been unfamiliar,” the editors of this volume say in their introduction. And indeed: This is nothing less than a lavishly illustrated and marvelously edited culinary trip around the whole world, with stops in North and Sub-Saharan Africa, China, Japan, Indonesia, Thailand, India, the Middle East, Italy, Spain, France, North America, the Caribbean and Mexico.

All recipes are broken down into small, easy to follow steps, demonstrated in numerous photos. Ingredients are listed with quantities given both in the American and the metric measuring system, thus making the recipes easily accessible wherever you live. Numerous cook’s tips add to the cooking experience and ensure its success. Most of the ingredients are easy to come by, although some may require a trip to a specialty food market. You’ll find plenty of now well-known favorites from the regions represented here, as well as rare and new creations you might not have thought of yourself.

All in all, the book includes more than 350 recipes. If you’re interested in one regional cuisine in particular, you may want to get specialized cookbooks from that particular country or region in addition. But as an introduction and a primer, this volume is very hard to beat.

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Highlights
Regional and International Classics
  • Avgolemono/Aarshe Saak (Greece and several Middle Eastern countries)
  • Baklava (Iran)
  • Boreks (Turkey)
  • Boston Baked Beans (U.S.)
  • Chateaubriand with Sauce Béarnaise (France)
  • Chicken and Prawn Jambalaya (Cajun)
  • Chicken Tikka Masala (India)
  • Chilaquiles (Mexico)
  • Chimichangas (Mexico)
  • Chocolate Profiteroles (France)
  • Chorizo in Red Wine (Spain)
  • Coleslaw (U.S.)
  • Couscous (Morocco; several recipes)
  • Crème Caramel (France)
  • Crêpes Suzette (France)
  • Curries (several recipes from Indonesia, Thailand, Burma and India)
  • Deep-Fried Bananas (Indonesia)
  • Falafel (Egypt)
  • Fried Plantains (Caribbean)
  • Frijoles Refritos (Mexico)
  • Hot and Sour Soup (China)
  • Houmus (Middle East; several countries)
  • Kebabs (recipes from several Middle Eastern countries)
  • Khoresh (Iran; several recipes)
  • Lamb Korma (India)
  • Lamb Pelau (Caribbean)
  • Louisiana Seafood Gumbo (Cajun)
  • Marinated Olives (Spain)
  • Marinated Vegetable Antipasto (Italy)
  • Mole Poblano (Mexico)
  • Mulligatawny (India)
  • New England Clam Chowder (U.S.)
  • Onigiri (Japanese rice balls)
  • Onion Soup (France)
  • Oysters Rockefeller (U.S.)
  • Paella (Spain)
  • Pasta all’ Arrabbiata (Italy)
  • Pecan Pie (Cajun)
  • Peking Duck (China)
  • Penne alla Carbonara (Italy)
  • Pineapple Fried Rice (Thailand)
  • Pizza (various recipes – Italy, of course …)
  • Potatoes Dauphinois (France)
  • Potato Tortilla (Spain)
  • Quesadillas (Mexico)
  • Ratatouille (France)
  • Satés (several recipes from Indonesia and Thailand)
  • Stir-Fries (several recipes from China, Indonesia and Thailand)
  • Sweet and Sour dishes (several recipes from China, Indonesia and Thailand)
  • Szechuan Chicken (China)
  • Tabbouleh (Lebanon)
  • Tacos (Mexico)
  • Tagines (recipes from several North African countries)
  • Tandoori Chicken (India)
  • Tarka Dhal (India)
  • Tiramisu (Italy)
  • Tom Ka Gai (Thailand)
  • Tostadas (Mexico)
  • Wonton Soup (China)
  • Zabaglione (Italy)
Some Unique Recipes
  • Artichoke Rice Cakes with Melting Manchego (Spain)
  • Asparagus with Orange Sauce (France)
  • Baked Fish in Banana Leaves (Thailand)
  • Baked Fish with Nuts (Egypt)
  • Chicken and Pistachio Paté (France)
  • Chicken with Tomatoes and Honey (Morocco)
  • Crab with Green Rice (Mexico)
  • Glazed Garlic Prawns (India)
  • Monkfish Parcels (Spain)
  • Nigerian Meat Stew
  • Salmon in Mango and Ginger Sauce (Caribbean)
  • Sesame Seed Prawn Toasts (China)
  • Stuffed Peaches with Amaretto (Italy)
  • Tanzanian Fish Curry
  • Thyme and Lime Chicken (Caribbean)
  • Tomato and Onion Chutney (India)
  • Veal in Nut Sauce (Mexico)

Merken

Merken

Merken

Reginald Fleming Johnston: Twilight in the Forbidden City

Twilight in the Forbidden City - Reginald Fleming JohnstonA compelling (if biased) account reflecting unique insights

You may have heard that “Twilight in the Forbidden City” is the book that Bernardo Bertolucci’s movie “The Last Emperor” is “based” on. If at all, however, this is true only with regard to the first part of the movie (the book was published in 1934, just as Pu-Yi had ascended the throne of “Manchukuo”), and actually, the book should not be read or understood in this limited sense at all. Primarily, this is the personal account of a British diplomat and scholar of the Chinese history, society and culture who, at some point in his career, was appointed to the (for a Westerner: unprecedented) position of tutor to China’s last monarch. True, those who have seen Bertolucci’s movie will recognize individual events described in this book, such as the Emperor’s birthday and wedding ceremonies (Bertolucci obviously used Johnston’s description of the birthday rituals as a model for the spectacular coronation ceremonies at the beginning of the movie – as Johnston had not yet been made tutor at that point, he could not give an eyewitness account of that event), and Johnston’s constant battle with the corrupt and reactionary palace eunuchs, as best exemplified by the fight over the emperor’s glasses (without which Pu-Yi arguably would have lost eyesight before long).

But Johnston’s book is not merely a biography of the Emperor. Rather, it is an account of the last period of the Manchu empire, and of the Chinese society in the second half of the 19th and the first decades of the 20th century. In addition to the author’s personal impressions gained inside and outside the imperial palace, up to and including Pu-Yi’s dramatic flight from the Forbidden City in 1924, which ultimately ended in the Japanese legation, the book also renders Johnston’s view of the role of the major foreign powers at the time (Japan, Russia, the U.S., Germany and, of course, his native England), and the Emperor’s predecessors and their politics, such as the powerful Empress Dowager Tzu-Hsi (named “the Venerable Buddha”), the reform attempts of the unfortunate Emperor Kuang-Hsü (which earned him, at the age of 28, lifelong humiliation, imprisonment and ultimately death in a tiny and windowless building within the imperial palaces), the Boxer Movement, and the brief and likewise unlucky interlude of the reign of Pu-Yi’s father (Kuang-Hsü’s brother), Prince Chun.

Johnston was a monarchist and fiercely loyal to Pu-Yi personally, so don’t expect him to treat any of the popular movements which ultimately brought the monarchy to an end with much sympathy or at least, objectivity. He probably also underestimated the dangers to China (and the Manchu dynasty) growing out of the Emperor’s re-installment as ruler of “Manchukuo” at the behest of the Japanese. In fact, the very title of this book is designed to reflect its author’s hope that, like the “Rising Sun” symbolized by the Japanese emperor, the Chinese monarchy would soon rise and shine again, too. Equating the 12 years between the establishment of the Chinese republic in 1912 and the Emperor’s expulsion from the Forbidden City in 1924 to a “twilight” period and the 10 years following it to the night, Johnston dedicates the book to Pu-Yi “in the earnest hope that, after the passing of the twilight and the long night, the dawn of a new and happier day for himself, and also for his people on both sides of the Great Wall, is now breaking.” In the book’s introduction, he again emphasizes that “there is a twilight of the dawn as well as a twilight of the evening” and that the dark period witnessed by China might “be followed in due time by another twilight which will brighten into a new day of radiant sunshine.”

This, of course, is not the only prediction where history has proven Reginald F. Johnston wrong. His analysis of the role of some of the key players of the time, for example that of the Empress Dowager Tzu-Hsi, is likewise not undisputed; and he himself has not remained without criticism, either (even at the time of its publication, a major purpose of the book was to defend his own actions and view of the facts). The book must therefore be read with a certain grain of salt. But few Westerners of his time had a knowledge of China equaling his, let alone his opportunities to observe and gain insights within the imperial palace. That, in itself, makes his account a compelling read.

Merken

Boris Zubry: Miles of Experience

Miles of Experience - Boris ZubryDiamonds in the Rough

I often wonder: How is it that there is a lyrical quality to the works of every Russian writer, unmatched by those of any other provenance with the exception of the Irish? Oh, I am aware that Boris Zubry has been living in the U.S. for close on four decades and has been an American citizen for almost as long. But he was born in Russia and quite obviously raised on a lavish supply of that country’s rich literary stock; and also quite obviously he has ingested enough of that fare to feel a desire to find his own place in the same literary tradition, somewhere between the works of Alexander Pushkin, Anton Chekhov and Ilya Ilf/Yevgenyi Petrov’s “Twelve Chairs,” with a dose of Jewish satirist Ephraim Kishon thrown in for good measure.

“Miles of Experience” is Zubry’s second book; a collection of stories and stream-of-conscience-style essays set in the Soviet Union of the author’s youth, in Saudi Arabia, the U.S. and in WWII Poland and Germany. Introducing each entry by a short poem and at his best when writing from a first-person perspective, describing life’s small, simple things – pleasures and disappointments, happiness and horror alike – Zubry takes the reader on a trip back in time and space, to places he has seen and experiences he has made; never shying from speaking his mind: direct, unapologetic, sometimes jarred, and not afraid of controversy. You won’t always find yourself agreeing with him; but if nothing else, you will be incited to formulate your own position.

The book opens with “Ali,” the touching account of an Arab shopkeeper’s young son who, raised in a traditional environment, is suddenly exposed to a group of rich city dwellers: an encounter that his simple upbringing leaves him ill-equipped to deal with.

The second story, “Cannon,” takes the reader to Portland, Oregon, where a friend of the narrator’s acquires a real cannon at an antiques fair and places it into his house’s front yard – with unexpected consequences.

“Crickets” (my personal favorite) is a story about the lost innocence of childhood, about a magical summer vacation’s ingenious children’s game gone horribly wrong, and about lessons learned and never forgotten.

In “Dates,” Zubry returns to Saudi Arabia, for a closer inspection of that country’s traditions and the clash of its contemporary society with the values of the Western world.

The title of “Domestic Violence” speaks for itself as far as subject matter is concerned – and women readers in particular should be prepared for being confronted with a viewpoint which, while based on the author’s personal observations, is as far as can be imagined from a politically correct approach to the issue.

“Jewish Blood” deals with the encounter between a highly-decorated German officer and a Polish soldier on the WWII front lines outside Warsaw – and the discovery of an unexpected link between the two of them.

“Land of Sinbad the Sailor” again takes the reader to present-day Saudi Arabia; and while (particularly in the post-9-11-2001 world and the days of Middle Eastern terrorism) Zubry’s analysis here and, partly, already in “Dates” probably reflects that of many Westerners, I would expect there to be sharp disagreement from an Arab and/or Muslim point of view. Along with “Domestic Violence” and “Sexual Harassment” (see below), this is doubtlessly one of the book’s most controversial pieces. Yet, when juxtaposing it with the first story, “Ali,” and also taking into account Zubry’s praise of Arab traditions like that of hospitality in “Dates,” it may be surmised that his overall view of the Saudi society is more complex than appears to be the case here.

“The Last Pogrom” is the collection’s single longest entry: part novella, part nonfiction account, it addresses anti-Semitism in the officially atheist Soviet Union and its consequences for the individuals concerned, as exemplified by a promising young engineer studying at Leningrad’s prestigious, top secret Institute for Military Mechanics, and his experience during a high Jewish holiday.

“A Room for a Boy” (another favorite of mine) explores a man’s secret loneliness: Although well-liked and respected in his community both on his own merits and those of his clever cat, there is an unfulfilled spot in his life … and he has found a unique way of making up for it.

“Russian Dedication” (rounding up the list of my greatest favorites) takes a hilarious look at the trademark inefficiencies of the socialist economy, Soviet style; seen in a construction project stuck in time and in endless repetitions of the same useless routine.

“Sexual Harassment” tells the story of a woman’s discrimination lawsuit against a midsize Silicon Valley pharmaceutical company, and its effects even after it has been settled. Again, the author expresses views that not all of his readers (especially women and members of minorities) will be comfortable with, and which are unfortunately far from uncommon.

“Wild Strawberries,” finally, is another return to the author’s childhood days, and to a magical vacation gone horribly wrong; although in this case not for the narrator himself but for a much-idolized personal hero who is belatedly caught up in the Soviet society’s web of political intrigue.

The twelve pieces collected in “Miles of Experience” are diamonds in the rough: Sometimes I would have wished for the hands of an insightful editor: not to censor of course, nor do I think Mr. Zubry’s hand could (or should!) be forced – but to remove some of the rocky edges occasionally obscuring the underlying candle, and to bring it out in its full shine. Yet, even without such polish they make for an interesting read; and in a time when literature (and particularly so, essays and short stories) increasingly seem to be about form and language rather than content, it is refreshing to find an author who is not afraid of expressing a straightforward opinion, while at the same time understanding the lyrical beauty of everyday life.