Category Archives: Books

On the Ultimate in Art

The word “ultimate” is in fashion. We have the “ultimate driving machine”, we yearn for the “ultimate vacation”. We might dream of the “ultimate relationship”. But  just this morning I started to ponder the question where our images of the ultimate arise from?

As Alisdair Palmer points out for Spectator, at least some of these images have been given to us by Michelangelo.  Michelangelo was the first ultimate artist and he created the ultimate image, now a “visual cliche”, of God giving life to Adam.

Joyce Carey  thought rather deeply about why we should and do care. And his novel, “The Horse’s Mouth” (first published in 1944) is not only very humorous, it also brings out some fascinating tensions that craving the ultimate creates in the artist and in society. Ronald Neame turned it into a movie in 1958 starring Alec Guinness, and it is, perhaps Guinness’s greatest performance. In this short snippet, we get a peek at Guinness as the obsessed and cantankerous artist Gully Jimson, errrr …  just released from prison. Enjoy! BTW, the story has some truly hilarious moments.

Berlin on Turgenev

The recent upheavals have reminded me of this quote from “Russian Thinkers

The dilemma of morally sensitive, honest, and intellectually responsible men at a time of acute polarization of opinion has, since (Turgenev’s) time, grown acute and worldwide. The predicament of what, for him, was only the “educated section” of a  country then scarcely regarded as fully European, has come to be that of men in every class of society in our day. He recognized it in its earlier beginnings, and described it with incomparable sharpness of vision, poetry and truth.


Knossos: The Minoans Were Obsessed with Bulls

Not bull. Bulls! Thus, we get the legends about the minotaur (half man, half bull). One legend is that the wife of King Minos actually gave birth to the minotaur. Yikes! I bet that created some interesting breakfast conversation! But what to do with such a creature? Boarding schools had not yet been invented. The king hired a clever Athenian named Daedalus to design a labyrinth so complex that the somewhat dense minotaur would not be able to escape. According to some, Daedalus himself might have been a bit low on the grey cell count, as he got lost in his own labyrinth. Oops! Ah well.  Now the question, how to feed the beast? Virgins? Well, that was an option back then. There is no record what Daedalus preferred.

In fact, the Minoans were a wealthy people. Their palace at Knossos is said to have looked like this

Now we just have the ruins, and very peculiar stories about the rise and fall of this ancient people. What happened to them? it is thought that a volcano exploded on or near the island of Thera around 1450 BC, which may have caused a tsunami that wiped out their fleet and made them vulnerable to conquest. Perhaps a visit to Crete and a trip to Knossos is in order to find out more and enjoy the seafood …

BTW, you might recall that James Joyce labored for a decade on his masterpiece, first called “Steven Hero” then “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”. He chose “Daedalus” for his hero’s family name. That same Daedalus, maker of the labyrinth to trap the minotaur. Was Steven a stand in for Joyce? Of course! At least in part. As the legendary Daedalus became lost in his own labyrinth, Joyce felt lost in the sea of history. So Steven struggles in the book to wake up, I can sympathize there. Coffee does help. Perhaps Joyce found and freed himself in his next whopper effort, Ulysses. But that, my friend, is another story.

Yet it may not be too far from the storyline to mention that Dylan Thomas was moved by Joyce’s classic to publish his “Portrait of the Artist as a Young DOG“.  It came out in 1940. It is a collection that I have much enjoyed over the years. Thomas claimed that the title was his publisher’s idea to enhance book sales. I am confident that it was Thomas’s idea … errr … to enhance book sales. There is a hint of Joyce’s style from the Dubliners here too.

Liebovitz on Great Cookbooks

Dave Liebovitz is getting some nice media attention. It could be because of his life style – he  worked with the legendary Alice Waters at Chez Panisse. Then he moved to Paris, where he blogs about food and the good life in Paris. So what cookbooks does Dave like?

Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi are good examples of that; they have an unusual background and present unique, inspiring takes on Middle Eastern and North African dishes. Alice Medrich fascinates me because she is inquisitive, always wondering why something works better than another ingredient, and you can feel her going the process of coming up with the recipe when you’re making it.

I also am, of course, a big fan of The Zuni Cafe Cookbook by the late, great Judy Rodgers—I always learn something when I open that book. And the Chez Panisse books by Alice Waters, because she, the restaurant, and the philosophy, were always inspirations and a big part of my life as a cook.

Ok. I admit it. I was a little envious of Paul Johnson getting to ride around Berlin in a brand new BMW X4 with a hot date. I am more envious of Dave’s ongoing adventures in Paris. Way to go Dave!

A Famous Bushism, Cruikshank, Mortimer and Wilde

I liked this one

The trouble with the French is that they haven’t got a word for “entrepreneur”.

Errr …. what can you say? Some protest that Mr. Bush may not have actually said this, but true or not, there is a certain stickiness to the attribution. It just seems to fit. Like Cruikshank’s outrageous  images of a bloated and crapulous Prince Regent

BTW, we worship at the altar of entrepreneurship, but Mortimer disdained entrepreneurs — too much of the trickster for his taste. He has a point, and it is one that cuts against the grain these days.  We are told that more choice is always better. In fact, fewer choices among stellar options would no doubt trump this. Who needs 300 TV channels full of soap operas, weight reduction sales pitches and auctions of fake jewelry?

The question is how do we produce that great stuff? How do we raise the overall quality of the stuff we make and do? Perhaps less, but much better! Oscar Wilde had an idea and it has to do with how you view yourself.


Tolkien’s Defense of Fantasy

I for one, was not aware that fantasy needed a defense. After all, we all imbibe from time to time. But what about fantasy as a story form? Isn’t it over the top? For children only? One fellow, a Mr. Tolkien, who was rather steeped in the stuff, felt otherwise.  You may have heard of him. He cautioned that we must not make fun of magic. And he has a point there, I think. Life must have magic.

So it is only natural that physicists have their quantum mechanics.

Dame Agatha: On Margery Allingham

We know Dame Agatha. Agatha Christie, of course! But who is Margery Allingham?  More precisely, who was Margery Allingham? Dame Agatha had this to say about her (in her introduction to “The Return of Mr. Campion”)

That is, I think, the particular hallmark of Margery Allingham — the fantastic and the real, intermingled. And she has another quality, not usually associated with crime stories. Elegance. Elegance of style is unusual nowadays. Virginia Wolf, Elizabeth Bowen — not many others come to mind. How seldom are words used with aptitude, delicacy, point.

And of course, she was a member of the Detection Club. I rather like this image of her

BTW, Mystery did a rather nice TV series of her works called “Campion“. Peter Davison (also remembered as the “fifth Doctor”) captured the rather enigmatic character of this unusual detective rather well. And Brian Glover is brilliant as his butler, Lug.


Getting Drawn Into Dostoevsky

The beginning of a long journey has a unique feel to it. You know you are in for something that will most likely change you forever. Perhaps you feel unready for the change just yet. But you feel it coming.  There is a sense of imminence. It feels like this, the opening sentence of “The Brothers Karamazov”

Alexei Fyodorovich Karamasov was the third son of a landowner from our district, Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, well known in his own day (and still remembered among us) because of his dark and tragic death, which happened exactly thirteen years ago, and which I will speak of in its proper place.

Yikes Time to put on some coffee and find a comfortable chair.