October 22, 2020

“The Splendid and the Vile” by Erik Larson

I got to meet one of my non-fiction literary heroes, Erik Larson, in 2016 while playing the piano for a Chicago Library Literary Dinner. Every new book from him is cause for celebration, but he has outdone himself with “The Splendid and the Vile” about Churchill during the German blitz of England during World War II.

Doyle, Elizabeth Berg & Francesca Peppiatt

We get an inside look into Winston Churchill, his wife Clementine, his daughter Mary, his son Randolph, his daughter-in-law Pamela, as well as his familiars like his secretary John Coville or confidante Lord Beaverbrook. We also get to see what it might have been like for citizens of London and all of England. German bombs and incendiaries could decimate your home, your air raid shelter and your city’s architectural treasures in the space of a single evening. Larson helps you imagine what that continual anxiety must have been like during 1940 and 1941.

We are also given a glimpse into the thinking of Hitler’s acolytes, Hermann Goring, Joseph Goebbels and Rudolf Hess, to name a few of the infamous.

Especially noteworthy is the role the U. S. played in bolstering the morale of the British public. Harry Hopkins and Averell Harriman, representatives sent by FDR to report back to him, have their own important narratives. Before the U. S. officially entered the war after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the lending of military supplies, money and moral support to the British government and people helped prevent them from capitulating under the German air and water onslaught.

Someone blithely asked why we have to keep rehashing World War II. History repeats itself, as any historian will tell us, so it bears noting parallels between one’s current time and previous challenging eras.

Erik Larson has provided not only food for historical thought in “The Splendid and the Vile,” but created a non-fiction work with short informative chapters that impel the reader forward. Who says history has to be dry and dusty?

Andy Warhol – From A to B and Back Again at AIC

The Art Institute is presenting a major retrospective of the varied works of Andy Warhol. The exhibition features not only his large canvas works, but his early ad work, his drawings, his films, his television presentations, his sculpture and his collaborative art with the much younger artist, Basquiat. This is indeed a comprehensive look at his entire career.

Although he is best known for his brightly colored photo portraits of celebrities like Marilyn Monroe, Liza Minnelli, Muhammed Ali, Elvis, Elizabeth Taylor and Mao, it is perhaps his ”Death and Disaster” images that I found the most disturbing and thought-provoking. Car crashes, race riots, electric chairs and images of a widowed Jackie Kennedy seem to reflect how Warhol saw the turbulent mid-1960s.

As for the exhibition design, I love how the AIC has made wall cut-outs that let the observer see into other rooms, provided a mini-movie theater to view Warhol films and installed several small screens to view his television shows. The exhibit vestibule featuring his photos of famous people is a fitting beginning and ending to this homage to Andy Warhol.

A painter friend sniffed that using a print of DaVinci’s Last Supper and placing camouflage over it is hardly art, but nonetheless, Warhol has certainly had much more than the proverbial “15 minutes of fame”.

Art Institute of Chicago
111 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago, IL 60603

https://www.artic.edu/exhibitions/2937/andy-warhol-from-a-to-b-and-back-again

Through January 26, 2020

Père Lachaise Cemetery: A stroll through time

Five of us Cabaret Connexion singers had just seen the Van Gogh Art Immersive Exhibit in Paris and noticed Paris’ famous final resting place, Père Lachaise Cemetery nearby. It was a beautiful fall day so we agreed to wander amid the shady trees and ornate crypts and graves in search of a few artistic ghosts.

I had been to Père Lachaise years ago but this was before cell phones and the internet so I wandered fruitlessly, unable to find most of the famous grave sites. As luck would have it, three Cuban ladies in front of us were being led by a small man who seemed most knowledgeable about the environs. We started to tag along, after asking if we could join them.

It turns out that Paul, the man in question, was a volunteer docent who lived in the neighborhood and knew Pere Lachaise like the back of his hand. Off we trotted to see some of the most famous graves.

The cemetery is large so we had to cover a lot of beautiful terrain in between burial spots. I was able to touch the memorial with Chopin’s remains, although his literal heart remains in Poland. I gazed with bemusement at the gift-strewn Jim Morrison grave, and nodded with appreciation at the memorials to Moliere, Honore de Balzac and other literary luminaries. Some of my personal favorites were artist Modigliani, singer-songwriter Gilbert Bécaud, mime Marcel Marceau and beloved author Colette.

Some tombs and crypts are ancient and falling apart, but others are decidedly new. Our guide pointed out more recent head stones with colored photos embedded, most notably victims of the Bataclan and Charlie Hebdo bombings. A promenade through this restful place is a journey through culture and history.

The highlight of our walk was the tomb of Edith Piaf where we serenaded her with La Vie En Rose. Passersby were filming our little Cabaret Connexion group so our homage to the Little Sparrow may be floating in the electronic ether somewhere.

As our time ran short, I thought with regret of the many other grave sites I had wanted to visit, Oscar Wilde, Abelard and Heloise, Sarah Bernhardt and countless others. Having a guide made this a much more gratifying afternoon experience so we gratefully tipped him at the end of our afternoon.

Paris Greeters, link below, has people available to lead you through Pére Lachaise although this may not be the organization of our wonderful and knowledgeable guide, Paul. We never even got his last name.

This famous cemetery is like the Louvre Museum; don’t try to catch all of the highlights in a frenzy. Take your time and really experience the few things that you do see. Bonne chance.

Link to the full roster of people buried at Pere Lachaise: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_burials_at_P%C3%A8re_Lachaise_Cemetery

Paris Greeters: https://greeters.paris/en/

Game of Thrones Withdrawal Lingers

Nine years ago, I tried to read The Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin. I was overwhelmed with strange names, places and vocabulary. In frustration, I threw the book down, yet continued to watch the HBO tv series with avidity.

In my current throes of Game of Thrones withdrawal, my brother-in-law suggested I try reading book one of the series again. Lo and behold, all of the main characters were now familiar to me so I no longer felt like I was reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Book one is actually a page-turner. As in any book versus movie adaptation, the prose allows you to get a deeper sense of character, motivations are clearer and the palette of people and place descriptions is much richer and wider. Book Two, A Clash of Kings awaits on my nightstand.

If you have deep pockets and are a rabid R. R. Martin fan, you may want to consider attending the Carl Sandburg Literary Awards Dinner, an annual benefit for the Chicago Public Library Foundation. For $1250, you will be invited to a dinner honoring Chicago authors with George R. R. Martin as the special guest, along with U of C poet/essayist Dr. Eve L. Ewing. An acclaimed Chicago author will be at every table.

This is one of the yearly highlights of literary Chicago. Plus, you just might get to meet Martin. He has a B. S. and M. S. from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism so this is a homecoming, of sorts for him.

A member of SongShop used to play Dungeons and Dragons with Martin, back in the day. The next time you see me, you can guess who this might be!

For now, reading the books is prolonging my obsession with this fantasy series. Let me hope that a Game of Thrones intervention won’t be necessary. Any ideas on the perfect novel antidote?

For information on the Literary Awards Dinner:
https://cplfoundation.org/events/carl-sandburg-literary-awards-dinner/

Two birthday Jimmys: singer/sausage king Dean and singer/songwriter Webb

Jimmy Dean would have been 90 on August 10 (he died in 2010.)

I met Mr. Dean and his wife at the Pump Room in the 1990s. In a departure from his country music and sausage image, he was one of the most elegantly suited of men.

Jimmy Webb will be 72 on August 15.

I encountered the talented songwriter at the Sundance ski resort in Utah during a singer-songwriter workshop sponsored by the Johnny Mercer Foundation.Some of the songs he has penned are MacArthur Park, Wichita Lineman, By the Time I Get To Phoenix, Didn’t We and Time Flies.

Along with American and European standards, I will be doing a handful of Webb and Dean songs in honor of their birthdays.

Singer Jane Oliver turns 70 this week

I am celebrating Jane Olivor’s 70th birthday this week. Although she has not performed publicly since 2008, you can still find her superlative initial recordings, First Night, Chasing Rainbows, Stay the Night, The Best Side of Goodbye and Jane Oliver in Concert on music purchase and streaming sites.
I saw her at a concert in Minneapolis and was blown away by her power house voice and emotional intensity. Here’s hoping her recordings find their way onto the playlists of budding young singers.

Better still, let us hope that Jane has yet another act in her storied career.