Walking New York

Getting ready for a fall trip to New York City, I picked up this guide. It includes 155 brief (1-2 pages each) chapters on specific NYC structures, events, and individuals, giving historic background on their significance. Chapters include The Elevated Railway; St Paul’s Chapel; John Lennon’s Murder; Samuel J Tilden’s Gramercy Park home; Frederick Olmsted’s Greensward Plan; Great Fire of 1835; Washington Arch; Harlem Renaissance; Alfred E Smith; and so forth, including figures & events throughout New York City’s history. These features are then incorporated into one or more of the 14 Walking Tours, itineraries for viewing specific parts of the city, taking 1 -2 hours each.

This isn’t about where to stay or eat. It covers the standard first-time visitor attractions (Statue of Liberty; Empire State Building; Brooklyn Bridge) and so many others with brief, readable, meaninful background. I’ll be visiting with a teen and want to be able to pass on a bit of history here and there without being too obvious. The guide also makes quite interesting armchair touring  independent of an actual trip.

Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City by Michelle Nevius & James Nevius (New York: Free Press, 2009)

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A way of proceeding

I came across this title, which had been a New York Times Bestseller, and recognized the author, James Martin, from his work in America magazine, a Jesuit weekly for the layperson. It’s an understandable, eloquent guide to Jesuit thinking, spirituality and ways of living. I  now recognize that so many elements of retreats I had attended and readings that had intrigued me were Jesuit. Martin gives us an understanding, with examples from his own life, in a readable style, and includes some inspiring stories as well as a few good Jesuit jokes. As a teenager in the early seventies  my friends and I spent time at retreats and service projects with some Franciscans, one of whom, it was said, “had been educated by the Jesuits.” He was so smart, I remember thinking; but you could ask him anything and he knew how to explain it so you’d understand. Similarly Martin provides explication of concepts like “discernment”; “examen”; “desolation and consolation”.  A share of principles are illustrated with  movie plots (Moonstruck; Out of Africa; Rebecca) . Here there is inspiration; history; much about individuals I didn’t know had been Jesuits (the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins; the spiritual storyteller Anthony De Mello)  and reasons to think about incorporating some of the Jesuit way in one’s life.

The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life by James Martin, SJ (New York: HarperOne, 2010)

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Meeting Miss Brodie, again

Just a few weeks ago I caught one of my favorite old movies on TV, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Maggie Smith was as amazing as I remembered. I’ve been fortunate to have some teachers in my life who influenced me greatly; none of them were “a Miss Brodie”  – but they shared her passion for teaching and her gift for “putting old heads on young shoulders.” Always having known the movie was based on a book I had not read by Muriel Spark, I decided it was time to rectify that situation.

The book is a quick read (less than 150 pages in the HarperPerennial paperback edition). The novel, moreso than the movie,  is told from the point of view of one of The Brodie Set, Sandy. But the feel of the story is quite different: its setting is alternately  Marcia Blaine School in early 1930s Edinburgh, and a time much later when the girls are grown and looking back on their days under Miss Brodie’s influence. We learn what became of each of the six girls and of Miss Brodie, which the movie does not reveal.

I made my mental notes of where the movie had left out this or changed that; but I was most fascinated by the bigger decisions that had been made by those who created the screenplay (actually from a  successful stage play, which came first) to combine certain characters, to move certain pieces of dialog into different scenes, to prune here and emphasize a bit there, creating the engaging character study and drama that the movie surely is. What a skill that must be: to have seen the heart of the story in the little novel as the successful movie it became.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

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Finding Oz

I had just finished reading a biography of Victor Fleming, of special interest on this seventy year anniversary of Fleming’s two big successes: Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, made, I’ve always known, both in that same year of old Hollywood greatness, 1939. Two such different films that are part of the American psyche directed largely by one man in the same year – amazing.

Then I came across Evan Schwartz’ Finding Oz. Scwartz has visited all the places where Baum and his close family lived, haunted archives, interviewed surviving family members and given us the story of Baum’s creation of the story of Oz. Tellingly, Schwartz describes Baum’s achievement as a ‘discovery’ and gives us insight into the spiritual significance of the story’s themes and characters, quoting liberally from Joseph Campbell’s observations on the mythic archetypes in human life.

Baum was born in the Syracuse area of upstate New York. He married and with his wife raised four sons. His varied careers in family businesses, retail, traveling sales were struggles to support a family; but his true talent was always as a storyteller. It wasn’t until 1899, at the age of 43, that he penned the great American tale we have come to know as The Wizard of Oz.

Schwartz did not set out to write Baum’s biography, although the bio details are all there. Rather this is a biography of the great story itself, how it came to be, the myriad influences from Baum’s life: John D Rockefeller; the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair; Theosophy; Baum’s mother-in-law, the underrecognized suffragette, Matilda Gage; the yellow brick road in Peekskill that inspired the iconic path. It traces the making of the movie, production decisions, and remarks on artistic decisions (some good, some not so good) that caused the film to differ from Baum’s original story.
The book is a fascinating read, albeit not strictly chronological. At times I wished it included a timeline, which would have helped me place key events and people in context. I also could have wished for a more comprehensive index. Having said that, it’s delightful to know so much more about this story that was part of my childhood, in the older years from having read the book, but in the earliest years as the film, back in those pre-VCR days, when watching its annual network broadcast was a spring ritual. We didn’t have a color TV when I first saw it – but I could always imagine what Oz really looked like. Like so many young readers and viewers, I just knew.

Victor Fleming: an American movie master by Michael Sragow (New York: Pantheon Books, c2008)

Finding Oz: how L Frank Baum discovered the great American story by Evan I Schwartz (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009)

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Once Upon a Time…

If you are a baby boomer like me, you might have faithfully devoted Sunday evenings to watching The Wonderful World of Disney, hosted by the man himself. One intriguing episode took viewers behind the scenes — and I’ve never forgotten how fascinating it was to learn all that happened as part of the creation of those animated movies I so enjoyed. Once Upon A Time: Walt Disney, the sources of inspiration for the Disney Studios, is all that and more. This large format volume, loaded with full page color illustrations, is a companion publication to a 2006-2007 art exhibition in Paris and Montreal. As we learn, Disney traveled Europe and collected for his animators volumes of works of great European artists and their illustrations of fairy tales, landscapes and motifs that influenced Disney productions from 1937 – 1967. The Animation Research Library (ARL), part of the Disney studio, housed this wealth of material for the studio artists to consult, as well as drawings and early materials created for the Disney films themselves.

Disney invested in his artists; and the results were evident in his productions. From the book:

“The artists’ training program reflected Disney’s commitment to long-term growth and excellence rather than immediate profits. Only twelve years separate the weightless, rubbery, black-and-white Mickey in Steamboat Willie (1928) from the brilliant colors, rounded forms, nuanced movements, subtle acting, and sophisticated direction of Pinocchio (1940) and Fantasia (1940). An even shorter time divides the cartoon animals in Snow White (1937) from the stylized realism of Bambi (1942) – a speed of development unparalleled in art history. By ‘sending artists to school,’ Walt Disney was able to create the films that remain the standard by which all animation is judged, more than 60 years later.”

The book juxtaposes works of European artists with stills, sketches, models, and studies of Disney characters and landscapes that those works inspired or influenced. The many steps in the animation process are described; Disney’s philosophy of animation is also presented.

“The first duty of the cartoon is not to picture or duplicate real action or things as they actually happened, but to give a character life and action; to picture on the screen things that have run through the imagination of the audience and to bring to life dream-fantasies… ”

I was thrilled to see included a reference to the very episode of the Sunday evening show I remembered:

“The ARL has primarily served the needs of Walt Disney employees, although Walt Disney liked to share its resources with television views in the 1950s. On one such program, Walt took his views into the Studio’s ‘morgue’. To enhance the mystery (complete with a skeleton at the vault entrance), Walt pulled away a sheet from what appeared to be a body on a gurney only to reveal art and publicity photographs from early Disney films. He then proceeded through the morgue selecting and showing art from his favorite films.”

A whole course in a book, this makes a delicious read. Don’t rush.

Once upon a time : Walt Disney, the sources of inspiration for the Disney Studios / Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais ; Pavillon Jean-Noël Desmarais, The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

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Reading the Great Books

Chris Beha sets himself the task of reading straight through the 50 plus volume set of the Harvard Classics, compiled and originally published in 1909 by Charles Eliot, a long serving president of Harvard College. Beha first became acquainted with the set, referred to as the Five-Foot Shelf or the Shelf, as a child when he saw it on his grandmother’s shelf. He gives the reader a chapter each month, discussing his reading, his feelings about what he’s reading, what’s going on with him and with his family at his parent’s home in Manhattan and elsewhere. Beha discusses what makes something a classic, how such works do and don’t reflect their times, and what he finds in these works. (Sometimes beauty, sometimes wisdom, sometimes utter boredom.)The book is well written, thoughtful and thought-provoking, the work of an obvious booklover. See what comprises the Harvard Classics set at Bartleby.com

The whole five feet : what the great books taught me about life, death, and pretty much everything else / Christopher R. Beha (New York, NY : Grove Press, c2009)

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Mysteries of the Middle Ages

Mysteries of the Middle Ages, the latest offering by Thomas Cahill displays his scholarship and his skillful insight into history’s great personalities, adventures, tragedies. A Cahill sentence from Chapter 2:

“Eleanor [of Aquitaine] loved musical performances, especially the newly harmonized chansons …of the troubadours — of whom her grandfather had been the first, a sort of knightly Chuck Berry to a younger generation of Beatles and Rolling Stones.”

Full of maps, charts, and beautiful four color images of medieval masterpieces. This gorgeous volume, the fifth in Cahill’s Hinges of History series, is as wonderful as time spent in rapt attention to the lectures of your very favorite history professor. I devoured Cahill’s earlier volumes, and still contemplate our Western civilization indebtedness to the tireless, scribing monks of How the Irish Saved Civilization (his first work in the series). From Alexandria to Rome to Paris; Constantine to Giotto to Dante; Cahill’s range is broad and his mastery is compelling. If you love the language and lore of the age in Europe’s past we call “dark,” you will thrill to this narrative. Again, Cahill:

“To medieval man, the cosmos was full of ‘secret confines,’ arcana no one knew the way to and few knew anything about but which one might stumble upon without warning. As in those fables rooted in the Middle Ages and collected by the Brothers Grimm in the the nineteenth century, a secret door or a hidden pathe might lead the unsuspecting traveler almost anywhere. Like Alice’s rabbit hole or the wardrobe that leads to Narnia or Hildegard’s imagine mountain perforated by windows, reality itself was permeable. ”

Mysteries of the Middle Ages : the rise of feminism, science, and art from the cults of Catholic Europe  by Thomas Cahill (New York : N.A. Talese, c2006)

How the Irish saved civilization : the untold story of Ireland’s heroic role from the fall of Rome to the rise of medieval Europe by Thomas Cahill (New York : Nan A. Talese, Doubleday, c1995)




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