May 22, 2018

Manhattan Beach: tour de force fiction from Jennifer Egan

Lovers of fiction may remember the unusual and beautifully crafted writing in 2010’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.

Egan has hit another literary home run with Manhattan Beach, a more conventional work that still features her luminous writing. Take a peak at her research in the back of the book and you discover some of the subjects covered in her intriguing story.

The female lead character, Anna Kerrigan, works in the Brooklyn Naval Yard during WWII, measuring components for battleships. She manages to push her way into a diving program that features laughably bulky and primitive equipment and a boss who is decidedly against women in his employ.

Hovering around her central arc are depictions of New York’s organized crime operation which employs her father after his stints in vaudeville and his time as a stockbroker before the 1929 Crash. Anna meets his boss, Dexter Styles, a nightclub owner with shady ties as a little girl and again becomes involved in his life as an adult.

Two sections in particular struck me speechless with their beauty and immediacy. Styles helps Anna take her developmentally disabled sister, Lydia to Manhattan Beach where she is able to commune with the sea and sky.

Without tipping a plot point, I will also note a series of scenes concerning a merchant marine ship that is being hunted by German U-boats off the coast of Africa. I was on the edge of my proverbial chair with this riveting account of life aboard a ship, especially one encountering mortal dangers.

This is not pop fiction although the prose reads like a thriller. Egan has managed to use her stunning skills to create a blend of historical fiction with a masterful depiction of unforgettable characters.

Manhattan Beach just may be a book to put on your summer reading list.

Blossom Dearie and Bob Dorough

At the passing of singer-songwriter Bob Dorough, known for writing jazz standards and music for Schoolhouse Rock, it is worth noting his connection to Blossom Dearie who would have been 94 this week, the same age of Dorough who died this past week.

Dearie moved to Paris in 1952 and sang in a jazz vocal group called the Blue Flames with Michel Legrand’s sister, Christiane and none other than Bob Dorough. They had a hit with a French version of Lullaby of Birdland arranged by Michel Legrand.

Rocket ahead a couple of decades, and you find Dorough and Dearie working together again on Schoolhouse Rock which was initially broadcast on tv from 1973 to 1985. Blossom sang songs written for the educational show by Dorough: Mother Necessity, Figure Eight and Unpack Your Adjectives.

I recently heard her a handful of Dearie recordings on the Amazon show, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. That ethereal voice of Dearie lives on!

And if you were wondering where she got that distinctive name, someone delivered peach blossoms to their home on the day of her birth 94 years ago. Blossom was her middle name but it became part of her stage name. Dearie passed in 2009 at age 85.

Several years back, I took a songwriting seminar with Bob Dorough at the Old Town School of Folk Music. Dearie came in to see me perform at the Pump Room when she was in Chicago for a gig. Dorough and Dearie were both consummate performers and songwriters. I was blessed to have met and admired both of them.

The German Cabaret Legacy in American Popular Music by William Farina

Evanston resident, author William Farina has written an excellent book about how Germany’s Weimar cabaret culture has impacted much of Western music and culture in the past several decades.

The Weimar Republic is loosely defined from 1919 to 1933 which is the time after World War I in Germany until the run-up to World War II. The 1930s saw the rise of Nationalism and the Nazi Party leading up to the global maelstrom between the Allies and the Axis. As one has watched the rise of nationalism in our own country, one could draw some unsettling parallels between our present day and that of this storied era of German history.

Troubled times frequently result in artistic ferment and the Weimar Republic is a particularly good example. Kurt Weill and Frederick Hollander were writing music, Lotte Lenya (Weill’s wife) was setting new standards in performance and a young Marlene Dietrich was creating a persona that would find world-wide popularity.

Josef von Sternberg (The Blue Angel), G. W. Pabst (Pandora’s Box with Louise Brooks), F. W. Murnau (Nosferatu) and Fritz Lang (Metropolis) were but a few of the filmmakers working in Germany at the time. Leni Riefenstahl was also writing and directing films throughout the 20s and 30s before signing on as the official visual recorder of the Nazi regime.

German performers, writers, directors, composers and authors, many of them Jewish fled and created new lives for themselves in Hollywood, in New York and in countless cities in the U. S. and other European locales. Little wonder that all of the arts would be impacted by this diaspora.

Lotte Lenya & Louis Armstrong

Interesting connections are made throughout Farina’s book. Jim Morrison of the Doors was a film student of Josef von Sternberg which may explain why he recorded Weill’s Alabama Song. The Beatles got their true start playing cabaret venues in Hamburg, Germany, even recording German versions of some of their songs. Singer-songwriter Bob Dylan wrote that he became semi-obsessed with the song Mack the Knife. Lotte Lenya also recorded a version of Mack with the legnedary Louis Armstrong.

Marlene Dietrich, who performed live cabaret shows from the early 1950s to the mid-1970s, was instrumental in creating the “big name” tradition on the Las Vegas Strip. No less than Burt Bacharach was her music director/pianist before his run of song hits. In her final film appearance, Dietrich shared a scene with David Bowie singing the song Just a Gigolo.

Marlene Dietrich

Broadway writers Kander and Ebb renewed interest in the Weimar Republic with their groundbreaking musical Cabaret which cast Lotte Lenya in a supporting role on Broadway. Many of the songs from their other musicals, most notably Chicago, have a Berlin cabaret feel.

Weill songs can be found on recordings by the likes of Bette Midler, Marianne Faithful, Teresa Stratas and Dee Dee Bridgewater. Mack the Knife alone has been sung by Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Michael Buble, Bobby Darin, Sting and Lyle Lovett, to name a few.

Ute Lemper

Current German cabaret artists like Ute Lemper and Max Raabe continue to play to sold-out houses across the globe.

My show at Dank Haus on Friday, April 6 will include a short presentation by William Farina and my interpretation of songs by Kurt Weill, Kander & Ebb, the Beatles, Burt Bacharach, Bob Dylan, selected song hits of Marlene Dietrich and Edith Piaf along with some of my own creations.

Show details below. Tickets must be ordered in advance.

A French Village/Un Village Francais Season 7 on MHZ

I wrote a blog post on Un Village Francais/A French Village a while back, but an update was definitely needed since MHZ recently made the seventh and final season available on its streaming service.

The wrap-up season has been somewhat of a let-down after six previous engrossing seasons, but most fans of the show will want to see the characters through to their respective ends.

The creators of the program use flash-forwards to future decades including the 21st century. Make-up artists were tasked with aging people in some cases into their 90s with mostly believable results.

Just a word of warning, if you expect the aftermath of the French Occupation to be a “feel good” affair, you will be greatly disappointed. Many of the characters are forever damaged by their experiences. The final episodes have intricate and confusing plot points that may need some further clarification.

If you complete all seven seasons, here is the MHZ page with 41 comments about the final season and possible interpretations:

https://mhzchoice.vhx.tv/a-french-village/season:7/videos/afrvil-c-07006?anon=17dcf608-2acd-428d-9a3e-1784dbc70976

Manhunt: Unabomber on Netflix

I vaguely remember news reports on the Unabomber, but the new Netflix series Manhunt: Unabomber takes you into the world of Ted Kaczynski, the infamous man who sent mail bombs from 1978 to 1995. Don’t view the series as true history however, since FBI agent Jim Fitzgerald, well-played by actor Sam Worthington, is a composite character who never actually interviewed Kacznyski.

As far as drama goes, you will be sucked into this compelling tale with Paul Bettany creating an amazing portrait of the genius serial killer. The cast is fine throughout, but you may be tickled by some of the star turns: Chris Noth as FBI boss Don Ackerman, Janet Lynch as Attorney General Janet Reno, Michael Nouri as Bob Guccione and Brian d’Arcy James as evil professor, Henry Murray.

My only quibble is with the time jumps between 1995 and 1997 which are sometimes confusing and leave some unanswered questions. The flashbacks to earlier decades are much easier to follow. Nevertheless, the 8 episode mini-series created by Andrew Sodroski, Jim Clemente and Tony Gittelson might be worth your time if you like crime drama and exceptional acting.

As we see electronics and artificial intelligence creep into every aspect of our daily lives, Kacynzski’s Manifesto can be read today as a cautionary tale, not only for what he was saying, but for making clear that there is no message that justifies deadly means.

And I must admit that I have looked at my delivered packages in a somewhat different light since watching Manhunt: Unabomber.

Art Institute of Chicago exhibit: Revoliutsiia! Demonstratsiia! Soviet Art Put to the Test

There is a most unusual and fascinating exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago right now, Revoliutsiia! Demonstratsiia! Soviet Art Put to the Test.

This large installation in Regenstein Hall illustrates the dramatic shift from Imperial Russian design to that of the Soviets after 1917. Literally everything was impacted by this cultural tsunami. Graphic design on posters, art direction in theaters and in film, fabric, dishes, furniture, mobiles and paintings all reflected this new vision.


Some of my favorite things in the exhibit include a replica of Rodchenko’s Workers Club including a black and red chess set, a 2 1/2 minute recording of Lenin giving a speech, a space that resembles an agitprop train compartment that features Soviet cartoons and documentaries as well as a 1926 exhibition room that features paintings by Piet Mondrian, Francis Picabia and El Lissitzky.

If you choose to be immersed in this stark and geometric world that has style implications in the present day, you have until January 15, 2018 to catch Revoliutsiia! Demonstratsiia! Soviet Art Put to the Test.