November 24, 2017

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

When a book wins the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and is a choice for Oprah’s Book Club, notice must be taken. Such is the case with The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, an epic novel about Cora, a slave on a Georgia cotton plantation.

The book has been on my “to read” list since its 2016 release, but I must admit, the topic of slavery was a tough issue for me to tackle; likewise, the Holocaust. How can anyone justify such inhumanity to other sentient beings? Whitehead, however, allows the reader to think about these issues through the eyes of slaves, slave owners, slave hunters and people on both sides of Abolition.

The Underground Railway is fiction with a touch of magical realism. In Whitehead’s world before the Civil War, the railroad is an actual transportation system with secret stations, tracks and volunteers both black and white who keep the conveyance running.

The novel has much in common with The Iliad and other ‘grand journey’ stories, but Whitehead has imbued the writing with emotional scenes and unforgettable character depictions. Cora encounters villains and heros alike on her flight from slavery.

I often found myself close to tears while listening to this masterful work. Yes, I used an audio book to experience The Underground Railroad.

However you choose to experience this award-winner, I urge you to consider reading The Underground Railroad. I plan to get a paper copy in the near future so I can further appreciate the fine writing of Colson Whitehead.

And what a movie this will make! Spielberg or Oprah, have either of you bought the movie rights yet?

Mind Hunter on Netflix

Netflix recently premiered an original series called Mind Hunters which dramatizes the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s initial research into serial killers. Strange to think that before the 1960s, the FBI had yet to compile data on individuals who had murdered multiple people. Richard Speck, Ted Bundy, Son of Sam and many others changed all of that.

Jonathan Groff of Glee and Hamilton fame plays special agent Holden Ford who begins to interview incarcerated murderers and sees some patterns in upbringing, methods and thought processes. The behavior science team is rounded out by partner Bill Tench played by Holt McCallany (see the post on his mother, Julie Wilson) and Anna Torv who is the academic who comes up with a questionnaire to show some commonality in the crimes of these killers.

The murders mentioned are gruesome and true so this is not a series for the faint of heart. Some reviewers have said the pacing is slow, but the ten episodes kept my attention. As a fan of crime drama, I found this dramatic history of FBI “profiling” to be incisive.

Dior Exhibit in Paris

If you are interested in fashion and happen to be in Paris before January 7, 2018, run, do not walk to the Dior exhibit at the Louvre’s side museum, Les Arts Décoratifs.

If you don’t buy a ticket in advance, bring an umbrella and a friend or a book because you will most likely wait up to an hour outdoors for admittance. Le tout Paris and female tourists of all ages are flocking to this fantastic homage to the fashion house of Dior.

Not only are the gowns and accessories breath-taking, but the presentation of the fashions is innovative. One large glass panel has a pointillist photo that disappears when the lights are raised to expose the elegant dresses inside the vitrine. Another gigantic glass showcase features a profusion of single-color items such as hats, miniature dresses, jewelry, shoes and other accessories. One follows groupings of red, pink, yellow, green, blue, silver and white items that absolutely delight the eye.

Another stunning display has a ceiling of white leaves that drape above the stunning Dior dresses.

There was another room across the lobby which I did not get to see. Flut alors! The guards are quite firm about leaving the museum at closing time.

Sorry to say that very few men can be seen attending this exhibit. Their loss because the ingenuity of Christian Dior and the subsequent house designers along with the breathtaking museum displays make this a uni-sex crowd-pleaser.

Designs by Raf Simons, John Galliano, Christian Dior and Marc Bohan in a chromatic display in the Dior exhibition at Les Arts Décoratifs.

For more information and ticket purchase:
https://www.dior.com/couture/en_us/the-house-of-dior/exhibitions

Lincoln In the Bardo by writer George Saunders

One of my favorite fans recommended the novel Lincoln in the Bardo, an unusual and poetically moving work by George Saunders.

Saunders was impelled to write a book about the death of Abraham Lincoln’s beloved son, Willie when he learned that newspaper accounts reported Abe creepily and heartbreakingly visited his son’s crypt to hold the recently dead body. Imagine the Pieta with Lincoln and Willie as stand-ins.

Saunders’ book takes place over one evening in the “bardo,” a limbo-like place between life and death and uses true history citations as well as fictional footnotes.

Another book-loving friend found the middle of the book to be tedious, but I found it to be one of the most creative pieces of writing that I have encountered in quite a while. James Joyce’s Ulysses comes to mind as we become privy to the thoughts of Lincoln, Willie and several other “sick-box” residents.

Those who want a speedy plot-driven read should look elsewhere. If you’re up for a challenging mixture of fact and fiction, beautifully and adventurously written, consider diving into the Bardo.

FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting) and Snopes

With all of the talk about fake news, two web sites have become indispensable for my determining what may or may not be true.


FAIR’s tag line is “Challenging media bias since 1986.” The web site posts stories on current topics using a variety of news sources and aims to provide Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting. I especially like FAIR’s list of sites they frequently use for news reporting.

http://fair.org/take-action-now/online-news-sources/

Three of the major categories include Alternative News with sites like Mother Jones, The Nation and the Utne Reader. The Corporate News category contains the world’s heavy news hitters such as Le Monde, BBC World News, The New York Times, The Washington Post and Reuters. The Media Criticism and Resources section includes Crooks and Liars (with a funny Nixon cartoon logo), the daily howler, the Vanderbilt Television News Archive and world-newspapers.com which provides links to numerous global newspapers.

I challenge you to check out one new site daily, for a week, to shake up the way you view your news.


If you have a specific news event which you’d like to verify, consider snopes.com, also known as the Urban Legends Reference Pages. Created by Barbara and David Mikkelson in 1995, they amusingly named the site after an unpleasant family in William Faulkner’s novels.

Other sites that test the veracity of topics include:
TruthOrFiction.com
FactCheck.org
The Straight Dope (fighting ignorance since 1973) – http://www.straightdope.com/
The Skeptic’s Dictionary – http://www.skepdic.com/
MythBusters – http://www.mythbusters.com/

In the words of character Joe Friday (played by actor Jack Webb) on the tv show Dragnet, “All we want are the facts, ma’am.”

13 Hours: the Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi by Mitchell Zuckoff with the Annex Security Team

Mention the word Benghazi and both liberals and conservatives bristle. Journalist Mitchell Zuckoff interviewed the private security personnel who were present on Sept. 11, 2012 in Benghazi, Libya and has created a non-fiction account that is absolutely riveting.

Although the principal American consulate in Libya was in Tripoli, Ambassador Christopher Stevens was visiting the diplomatic Compound in the secondary city of Benghazi on September 11, 2012. A few blocks away was a CIA center called the Annex with highly trained security guards who were tasked with keeping Ambassador Stevens and other American officials safe.

We are given first hand accounts of the attacks on both the Compound and the Annex. The reader is placed in the midst of fire, smoke, bullets and bombs. The bravery of both private and governmental agents is awe-inspiring.

Your political view of the debacle may not change, but you will certainly know more about what American personnel face when working in countries hostile to the United States.

I have not seen the 2016 movie adaptation by filmmaker Michael Bay, which received mixed reviews, but the movie title and tag line does illuminate a major theme in the well-written book. “13 Hours: the Secret Soldiers of Benghazi. When everything went wrong six men had the courage to do what was right.”

Girl Waits With Gun by Amy Stewart

My book-loving middle sister recommended Girl Waits With Gun by Amy Stewart, a delicious historical fiction about a woman who stands up to a spoiled heir who runs into their family horse and buggy with his new-fangled motor car.

Constance Kopp inadvertently begins to do detective work, learns how to handle a gun and uncovers crimes such as arson, kidnapping, assault, and even murder. The year 1914 vividly comes to life as we see the Kopp women, Constance, Norma and Fleurette battle not only thugs and bullies, but the restrictive roles placed upon women before World War I.

Amy Stewart’s writing reads like the best detective fiction yet the Kopp Sisters and their stories are based on fact. I see that Stewart has written two sequels to this rollicking read, Lady Cop Makes Trouble and Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions. I have to get copies, stat!

Notes on the 2017 Elkhart Jazz Festival

David Edelfelt, Elizabeth Doyle & Charles Troy at the Midwest Museum of American Art (a former downtown Elkhart bank)

As musical guests of Charles Troy in his two Cole Porter presentations this past weekend, David Edelfelt and I were introduced to the charms of Elkhart, Indiana and its Jazz Festival, celebrating its 30th year.

The entire downtown becomes one big block party with food concessions, an exhibit of vintage cars and music, music, everywhere. People lay claim to the outdoor row seating or bring lawn chairs to install themselves in front of two large outdoor stages, or they pop into clubs, churches and theaters to catch a great variety of jazz during the three day festival.

Elizabeth Doyle at the Midwest Museum of American Art during the 2017 Elkhart Jazz Festival

The two programs we presented were Cole Porter and the Great Depression and Cole Porter’s Top Ten List Songs. Our connection to jazz was illustrating the provenance of Porter tunes that have become jazz standards. Hoosiers are justifiably proud of Cole Porter and Hoagy Carmichael who hail from Indiana.

Gene Bertoncini, Bucky Pizzarelli, Martin Pizzarelli and Ed Laub at the New Life Community Church during Elkhart’s 2017 Jazz Fest

We were able to catch some fantastic music when we weren’t engaged ourselves. Chicago trumpeter Bobby Lewis was regaling crowds outdoors with his 1988 Rhythmakers Revival Band. The Ed Laub Trio featured revered 91-year-old guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, his son Martin, guitarist Gene Bertoncini and guitarist/vocalist Laub.

We ended Saturday evening hearing the Fat Babies, a tight 8-piece Chicago  band that specializes in 1920’s and 1930’s jazz charts. Audience members leapt to their feet at the end of this young band’s invigorating set.

We also had outstanding food at the Main street restaurant, 523. Their menu had something for everyone, including steaks and chops, seafood, burgers, salads and vegan fare. This establishment has big city tastes with seasoned wait staff and an interesting bar menu.

Seward Johnson’s “American Gothic” statues in Elkhart’s Central Park

David Edelfelt posing with Seward Johnson’s statue of Marilyn Monroe

Art lovers can admire 56 life-like statues by sculptor Seward Johnson, dotting Elkhart and environs. A giant replica of Grant Wood’s American Gothic in Elkhart’s Central Park was my favorite. Then again, I almost put money into the guitar case of a street musician until I realized he was inanimate.

I plan to return to see all 19 of the Quilt Gardens along the Heritage Trail, having seen one downtown garden that used real flowers to fashion a patchwork pattern. There are also 22 hand-painted murals on buildings that continues the quilt theme throughout the city.

A visit to downtown Elkhart encompasses music, art, good food and fine fellowship.

Count me in for next year’s 31st Elkhart Jazz Fest.

www.elkhartjazzfestival.com

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the F. B. I. by David Grann

If your taste runs to historical non-fiction, consider Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann, a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine and the previous bestselling author of The Lost City of Z.

A veritable “Reign of Terror” was waged on the Osage tribe in the 1920’s as wealthy members were bumped off for their money and “headrights.” Local law enforcement and courts in Oklahoma seemed unable or unwilling to investigate and prosecute the guilty parties.

Enter Tom White, a Western sheriff who was tasked by Edgar J. Hoover and his fledgling Federal Bureau of Investigation with getting to the bottom of this rash of Indian deaths by poison, guns and bombs.

Just when you think the case is all wrapped up, Grann digs deeper to find more skullduggery. The book reads like a cross between precise journalistic writing and a thriller. Killer of the Flower Moon belongs on the shelf with other books about the West, Native American history and the FBI. Truth is stranger than fiction, indeed.

The Nightingale by author Kristin Hannah

Published in 2015, The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah was the darling of book reviewers and book clubs alike when it first came out. It viewed World War II France from the perspective of two sisters, one woman who was trying to raise her daughter without fighting against the German occupiers and the other, an active member of the Resistance.

I must admit that the prose is not going to rival any of the great literary giants, but the plot is engaging and there are many emotional moments as the characters navigate through the treacherous waters of loyalty, patriotism, brutality, self-interest and love.

There seems to be an inexhaustible interest in World War II, Paris and the Resistance. This book belongs on the large shelf of entertaining historical fiction that is set during this turbulent and storied time.

Hannah, the author of over 20 books is yet another lawyer-turned-writer. She lives with herhusband in the Pacific Northwest and Hawaii.

http://kristinhannah.com/