Small Museums, Big Pleasures: South Bend, Youngstown, Cincinnati

It’s easy to love The Met, the Smithsonian, Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, the Getty, and the nation’s many other Major Museums. But really? Are you always up for eight or nine hours of that? You don’t have to visit one of these demanding (time, energy, and $$) enterprises to have a rewarding museum experience. Smaller, more manageable, typically less crowded museums throughout the country have impressive offerings. Here are east-of-the-Mississippi examples from recent travels.

Studebaker National Museum, South Bend, Indiana

OK, granted, you may have to have a thing about cars to fully appreciate the Studebaker National Museum. Old cars, that is (Studebaker stopped manufacturing its vehicles in the 1960s). But an appreciation of history can serve every bit as well. Before it manufactured automobiles, Studebaker produced prize-winning wagons and carriages. On display is the carriage that President and Mrs. Lincoln used for their ill-fated trip to Ford’s Theater. And the carriage used by Indiana native son, President Benjamin Harrison.

There are early “station wagons,” carriages designed especially for traveling to and from the train station (luggage outside). Among the farm wagons is a miniature version for children, with a sign reading “Propulsion provided by goat, large dog, or younger sibling.” Aww.

America’s Packard Museum, located in a restored Packard dealership in Dayton, Ohio, is equally impressive, carwise, BTW.

Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio

I remembered that the Butler Institute has Winslow Homer’s famous “Snap the Whip,” but I hadn’t recalled that its collection, devoted to works by American artists, includes so many other notable works, as a recent visit revealed. Some of the paintings from the Hudson River School and other mid-19th century artists are truly spectacular. There are some fun contemporary works as well, including a large painting of a dramatic scene from To Have and Have Not.

Butler—one of the few museums of its caliber that does not charge an admission fee and relies solely on community contributions—has an “Adopt-a-Painting” program in which donors can contribute to the restoration of specific works of art. That’s an exciting possibility, which may intrigue some of the museum’s 100,000 annual visitors. Maybe other museums have programs like this, but they have escaped my notice.

Taft Museum of Art, Cincinnati, Ohio

We visited the Taft Museum of Art in 2016 and liked it, but what caught my eye recently was the announcement of an upcoming exhibition (February 8-May 3, 2020) of the works of N.C. Wyeth. The passionate early 20th century works of the patriarch, N.C., appeal to me more than those of his son Andrew and grandson Jamie. I’m drawn to their swashbuckling energy and storytelling power. The exhibit will include his illustrations for Treasure Island, The Last of the Mohicans (Hawkeye, pictured), and The Boys’ King Arthur, as well as standalone works of equal vivacity.

Alas, I won’t be in Cincinnati during the run of this show, but I hope you will be and that you’ll see it and tell me what you liked best.

Two Tasty Movies

Ramen Shop

Ramen shop, directed by Eric Khoo, is a movie from Singapore with a slight plot (trailer), but who cares? The real star is the food. A young Japanese ramen shop worker’s father—a legendary ramen chef—dies. The son, in his early 20s, and a skilled chef himself, goes in search of his roots in Singapore. That’s where his father met his Chinese mother. He isn’t seeking just family connection, but also culinary roots, as a precious childhood memory is his uncle’s spare rib soup, bak kut teh. You see a lot of this dish being made (I’m using an online recipe to try it myself this week!) The healing power of food and the closeness inspired by cooking together as a family are sweetly invoked. If you don’t eat dinner before going to this film, you may end up chewing the sleeve of your jacket! Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 86%; audiences: 83%.

In Search of Beethoven

The composer’s 250th birthday year is generating numerous celebratory concerts and events, including resurrection of this 2009 documentary, written and directed by Phil Grabsky (trailer). Featuring a great many fine European pianists, string players, and orchestras, to a great extent the film lets the music speak for itself. It makes nice use of street scene photography (Bonn, Vienna), paintings and sculptures of the artist, and charming drawings of city life in the 1800s. The director is a frequent user of extreme closeup, in which you can almost feel the piano keys and violin strings under the musicians’ fingertips, which creates an unusual intimacy with the music. Nice sprinkle of talking heads and thoughtful narration. You come away feeling as if you’ve been to one of the best concerts ever. Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 92%; audiences: 80%.

3 Top-Notch Foreign Crime Novels

High-velocity plots and gritty characters typify American and British crime thrillers. Yet, this style is an artistic (and marketing) choice, not a precondition for gripping fiction.

Here are three recent crime novels from Nigeria, Argentina, and India that I enjoyed tremendously that stand up to the US/UK’s best. 

*****My Sister, the Serial Killer

By Oyinkan Braithwaite – For a book about violent death and two sisters’ efforts to cover it up, this entertaining fiction debut from Nigerian writer Oyinkan Braithwaite is remarkably full of life.

You can’t help but be charmed by the narrator Korede, who early on in her tale provides this advice: “I bet you didn’t know that bleach masks the smell of blood.” It’s a lesson she’s learned the hard way, covering up her sister Ayoola’s crimes now three times. The sisterly bond is more than the glue in this story; ultimately it is its subject.

Braithwaite infuses her narrative with insights into the culture, not only of Lagos, Nigeria, where the story is set, but also of the hospital where Korede works—the rivalries among the women staff and the administrators who do not lead. There’s not a shred of meanness in any of this, and much of it is quite funny.

Braithwaite’s light touch when exploring serious matters and the extraordinary honesty of the writing prompted numerous media outlets to name it one of the best books of last year, garnered it a 2019 Booker Prize nomination, and a made it a finalist for the 2019 Women’s Prize, among other honors. Best of all, it’s fun! Order it here. 

*****The Fragility of Bodies

By Sergio Olguín and translated by Miranda France – This award-winning Argentine novelist’s fast-paced 2012 crime novel is only now available in English. With all the elements of an engaging, visually arresting drama, no wonder it became an eight-episode tv series in 2017. The protagonist is a crusading reporter who acts with dedication and truth-telling, and if you enjoy the banter and oneupsmanship of the newsroom, as I do, you’ll find those scenes entertaining indeed.

Glamorous investigative journalist Verónica Rosenthal lives a privileged life in Buenos Aires. She’s pursued by attractive men, has loads of friends, drinks and smokes too much, but she’s serious about her investigative work. As a character, she’s fully developed, as are most of the men she interacts with, old and young, and there are some steamy sex scenes.

A wire service blurb about the suicide of a railway worker captures her attention when it quotes the man’s apology for the crimes he committed, especially the death of a child. Was the letter a confession or an explanation? Suicide by train is rather common, she learns. The drivers of the killer trains see the catastrophe coming, yet are helpless to prevent it. Some can never drive again.

Worse, on one specific train line, pairs of young boys are playing chicken with the speeding trains, and, occasionally, one waits too long to jump out of the way. Olguín makes the boys’ contests—how they think about them, how they prepare—into high-tension, truly horrifying encounters, and the closer Verónica gets to the truth behind this diabolical game, the greater the danger to her.

The admirable translation by Miranda France is so smooth, you’re never aware it actually is a translation. An unusual, brilliant read. Order it here.

*****Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous

By Manu Joseph – When an apartment building collapses in Mumbai, the lone survivor is a man filled with regrets, and complicated efforts are under way to extricate him from the rubble. The catastrophe coincides with the election victory of a conservative Hindu nationalist party, and the influence of politics on the characters in the past and in the current emergency is never far away.

Author Joseph is known for his biting political satires, and the significance of this book is enhanced by his sly observations about the state of Indian politics. (If you read Dexter Filkins’s recent reporting in The New Yorker about the Modi government’s anti-Muslim rhetoric and actions, events in the novel will seem all-too possible.)  

The unknown man is alive, but confused and mumbling about a terrorist threat involving two people (but who?) headed somewhere (but where?) to carry out an attack (but what?). The intelligence forces see the need for drastic preventive action, but no one knows what that should be. Overreaction seems almost inevitable.

Joseph’s character descriptions are strong throughout, making it easy to appreciate the characters’ motivations, as well as the stresses of living in a culturally and religiously polarized society. Although he makes strong points, he’s not giving a lecture. He lets the story make his case. Joseph is a literary author who has won several awards for his previous novels and is a former columnist for the International New York Times. Order it here.

Picture: GDJ for Pixabay.

Egypt Adventure: Cairo’s Ancient Sights/Sites

Visiting the sights near Cairo, we criss-crossed centuries even more than we traversed the local geography. Yet, as ancient as the Egyptian civilization is, its legacy can be found in our own today.

The tour took us first to the Egyptian Museum near Tahrir Square, a few short blocks from our hotel. There are collected some of the finest examples of the ancient culture’s sculptures and artifacts, though they are crowded together with little contemporary museum curation and context-setting, so that it’s hard to keep straight what relates to what. This situation will be remedied with the opening of the huge new Grand Egyptian Museum, expected next year.

Gradually over the course of the tour, when we saw other monuments, the treasures from that first day began to fit into place. My favorite room in the museum was the one containing likenesses of Pharaoh Akhenaten. Husband of Nefertiti, he was such an interesting character (and subject of a Philip Glass opera). His elongated features and sensuous lips are markedly different from the typical square-faced, mildly benevolent expression of most pharaonic depictions.

The oldest monuments near Cairo that we saw were at Sakkara and Memphis, the Old Kingdom capital of Egypt. Sakkara is an ancient burial ground for Memphis—Egypt’s capital 4500 years ago. (The Tennessee city was given the same name because it too, is on a great river.)

The area includes a beautiful temple and the famous “step pyramid,” the world’s oldest major stone edifice, built during the Third Dynasty for the pharaoh Djoser. It was the Egyptians’ first foray into this pyramid shape, something they later perfected with different building methods. The step pyramid’s architect was Imhotep, and there’s an archaeological museum there dedicated to him.

In Memphis are the beautifully detailed remains, if you can call them that, of a massive limestone statue of Ramses II, who ruled 3300 years ago, in the 19th Dynasty. Standing, it would be over 30 feet tall. He may be old, but he’s still impressive! (His statues inspired Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias”: “ʻLook on my works, ye Mighty and despair.’”)

Highlight of any Egypt trip is a visit to the pyramids of Giza, a Cairo suburb. You can be gazing at the pyramids, turn around, and there’s a city. They are the perfection of the pyramid form, used as tombs by the Old Kingdom Pharaohs. The largest is that of Khufu (Cheops), the second largest is that of his son Khafre, and the third largest that of Khafre’s son, Menkaure. Smaller pyramids for wives are nearby.

From a distance, the pyramids look smooth, like the pyramid on the back of the US $1 bill. But up close, their profile is jagged because of the stepwise layers of stone. Each of these stones is enormous, weighing several tons.

Theories still conflict about how the pyramids were constructed, but our guide emphasized that they were not built by slaves. Evidence has been found that during the limited construction season, workers came from all over Egypt to fulfill their one-time obligation to their ruler and were advised to consider it a privilege. I hope they did.

It’s Khafre’s pyramid that has the unfinished-looking top. We learned that all the pyramids at one time had an exterior limestone layer that did make the surface smooth. Alas, thieves looted the limestone for other construction, and that bit at the top is all that’s left. Amazing as they are, they must have been even more so in those days. You can go inside Khufu’s pyramid, but it’s a very confined passageway and you have to crouch down to get through it. I declined. The taller men who went came back with skinned scalps. Treasures from inside are all in the museum or looted long ago.

We were told that one of the huge limestone blocks used in creating Khafre’s pyramid turned out to have flaws, so he directed his architect to make a statue out of it. From that block the Sphinx was carved, an animal with the body of a lion and head of a human–an Egyptian mythological invention. Repeatedly over the millennia, the Sphinx has been covered in sand, including when Napoleon Bonaparte came to Egypt in 1798, an encounter memorialized in a famous painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme that, amusingly, cuts the grand Napoleon down to size.

Egypt Adventure: The Nile
Egypt Adventure: Security
Egypt Adventure: Muslim Dress

Photos: (Akhenaten) José-Manuel Benito Álvarez, creative commons license; all others, Vicki Weisfeld

Last Books Read in 2019

magician, assistant

***Cairo Modern

Written by Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz, translated from the Egyptian by William M. Hutchins. This story of how an unscrupulous college graduate gets his comeuppance captures a bygone time in the city and culture. Originally published in 1945, it’s more interesting than entertaining.

*****The Magician’s Assistant

I hadn’t heard of this 1997 book by Ann Patchett, but thankfully another tourist left it behind. It was captivating, start to finish and not the first book I’ve read lately about people involved in creating illusions. Sabine’s magician-husband, a gay man named Parsifal, has died, and soon she learns he’d made up his backstory. Grief-stricken, she tries to connect with his real history. Amazon link.

*****Inland

Téa Obreht’s new book is just great, and she vividly captures the essence and rhythms of America’s Old West. In a lawless, drought-stricken Arizona, a family struggles with the politics of water. Meanwhile, several states east, some bright individual in the US Army decides to import camels to use as pack animals—an experiment with unexpected consequences. Amazon link.

****The Oxford Murders

Billed as “a scholarly whodunit,” this novel by Guillermo Martínez, set in England, provides numerous puzzles for its mathematician protagonists to decipher in order to stop a serial killer. A lot of fun. Amazon link.

***Sharp Objects

Gillian Flynn’s 2006 debut novel is a page-turner, though you may guess early on who’s killing children in the tiny Missouri home town of the protagonist, Chicago reporter Camille Preaker. Camille has spent time in psychiatric care because she carves words into her body, and I found her experience with that even more engrossing than the mystery!

Photo: Enrique Meseguer for Pixabay

Egypt Adventure: Muslim Dress

Egypt, workmen, Temple of Dendera

What to wear? Inevitably, some American tourists did not get the message that conservative dress is preferred in Egypt—no shorts, no tank tops, no short skirts, no excessive display of skin. While this standard is pretty much adhered to in Cairo and, certainly, in mosques throughout the country (where you are expected to show the skin on your feet), near the monuments in the blazing desert sun, Bermuda-length shorts are more the rule, especially for men tourists. Many women wore capri pants. Jeans, which tend to be too form-fitting, were rare among women tourists. (I should add that most visitors, on our tour and others, were “of a certain age.”)

Although I wouldn’t have expected it, my shirts with three-quarter, loose-fitting sleeves were just as comfortable as short sleeves, because they protected my arms from the sun. I got a last wearing out of my somewhat battered hat from Hawai`i with the wide brim. Women tourists were never expected to cover our hair, although most of us had scarves or shawls that could have served that purpose.

But what about the Egyptians? In Cairo, the men generally wear Western dress. The women wear long sleeves, long pants or skirts, and cover their hair with the hijab, usually a colorful one. Occasionally you see a Cairo woman wearing the enveloping abaya (almost always in black; it looks suffocating) and wears the veil. The farther south you travel, the more women are so attired. Wearing the faceveil (the niqab) is seen by many as a political act in support of Islamism, not a religious duty, and the country’s leadership has tried to discourage it.

In the south, many men wear the long garment called the gellabiya. Most often, as I remember it, the gellabiya is gray, as it is in the photo of workmen at a construction site outside the Temple of Dendera. As every woman knows, a skirt is often cooler than slacks, because its movement creates a little breeze—automatic air conditioning. Many southern men wear a small turban. These keep the sun from beating down directly on their heads and are common among farmers in their fields.

Our tour guide told us that in much of the 20th century, Egyptian women did not cover their hair. But in the 1970s, when satellite television came to Egypt, there were many broadcasts by imams of Saudi Arabia’s conservative Wahhabi sect, who claimed that to be a “good Muslim” and go to heaven, women should cover. Eventually, our guide said, the authorities stopped these broadcasts, but the seed was sown. With about a third of Egypt’s population being Coptic Christian, you wouldn’t expect that headscarf-wearing would appear so near-universal.

Egypt Adventure: The Nile
Egypt Adventure: Security
Egypt Adventure: Cairo’s Ancient Sights/Sites

Photo: Vicki Weisfeld

Another Day, Another Film

popcorn

You could call it a “self-curated film festival” or you could just call me lucky to have two top-notch independent movie houses nearby. Whatever you call it, five movies in five days is a lot of popcorn-eating opportunity. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend any of these very different films if they sound like your thing. Two here, three next week.

Official Secrets

Gavin Hood’s film (based on a true story, whatever that means these days) centers on a woman (Keira Knightley) working for British intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war (trailer) . A memo comes through asking analysts to dig up information the Americans can use to pressure UN Security Council members to support the War. A Security Council endorsement would give the Bush Administration and the Blair government much-needed political cover.

But it’s wrong, and she leaks the memo, in violation of Britain’s strict Official Secrets laws. Matt Smith and Rhys Ifans are helpful and entertaining investigative reporters. She has a Muslim husband (Adam Bakri) a rights lawyer (Ralph Fiennes), and between them, they give fine and timely speeches about loyalty and treason. I was on the edge of my seat. Generally, I don’t like Knightley, but she’s great here.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 82%; audiences 89%.

Judy

Rupert Goold’s film, written by Tom Edge, about Judy Garland’s sad last days doesn’t contain plot surprises (trailer). It’s showstopping strength is Renée Zellweger’s amazing performance. You know Judy’s going to crash and burn, and you so, so, don’t want her to. It’s painful to watch.

She scrapes herself together at times, which gives you hope that she can fulfill her contract with a London theater for five weeks of sold-out performances. They’re bringing in the cash she desperately needs in order to reclaim her two younger children from husband #4, Sidney Luft (Rufus Sewell).

Zellweger doesn’t try to imitate Garland’s voice, but she’s got the mannerisms cold, and the way she belts out the songs, no wonder fans adore her. Flashbacks provide a cold appraisal of Hollywood’s exploitative star system, where her addictions began.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 83%; audiences 86%.

Four for the Road

****A Rising Man

India, dawn, village

Abir Mukherjee’s 2017 debut novel is an easy-to-read police procedural that shares many of the charms of his subsequent novel, A Necessary Evil, which I reviewed some time ago. Set in India around 1920, it provides a probably too-rosy view of the Raj, though many of the social problems, the racism, the unrest are certainly there. Nevertheless, within the frame of Mukherjee’s clever plot, in the end, you come away feeling you know more about the culture and the country than when you opened the book.

****If She Wakes

Michael Koryta’s thriller possesses what might be one plot thread too many, though the inciting event—a murder in which the only witness is injured and suffering from locked-in syndrome—starts the plot moving with a bang. If only she’d come out of it, she might have useful information about the murder. The principal protagonist, an insurance investigator, knows this. The FBI knows it. Her sister knows it. And so do the assassins who want to ensure her silence lasts forever. Medical websites consider locked-in syndrome a “rare neurological disorder,” but it’s not rare in thrillers! Here’s another good one.

*****The Siege of Troy

Yes, that Troy. Theodor Kallifatides uses a Greek classroom in WWII as the setting for a teacher’s inspired retelling of the tale of the Achaeans’ quest to recapture Helen, the frightful battles, the death of Hector, the loss of Achilles, and the cunning horse. Beautifully done, and a pleasure to read!

****The Chain

Adrian McKinty has received considerable publicity with this book, in part because it almost didn’t get written. Author of several excellent police procedurals featuring Catholic Sean Duffy, a detective with the heavily Protestant Belfast police, with all the conflicts that set-up suggests, McKinty had just about abandoned writing. Then comes The Chain, and, while I loved the Belfast books, the premise here is a stretch. On audio, the narrator, January LaVoy, beautifully conveys the fear experienced by frantic parents whose children have been ensnared by The Chain. They cannot get them back without paying a ransom and kidnapping someone else’s child. It’s diabolical, but is it even a bit believable? Hoping he’s back on a roll.

Photos: India (Mario Lapid), Trojan Horse (Ian Scott), creative commons license.

****The Honorary Jersey Girl

orchid-leis

By Albert Tucher – Al Tucher returns to the Big Island of Hawai`i in this fast-paced adventure that shows how, underneath the tropical paradise veneer, the mai-tais and the surf, you find the same criminal proclivities everywhere.

Criminal defense attorney Agnes Rodrigues has successfully defended her client Hank Alves against a charge of murder, but apparently not everyone accepts the verdict. Now someone is trying to kill him. And because the murder victim was a cop’s wife, it may be the loyal brothers in blue.

Rodrigues is convinced of Alves’s innocence—he’s too lame to commit an actual murder. He needs protection, and she knows where to find it. She flies ten hours across the country to New Jersey to try to persuade Diana Andrews, a former high-end prostitute who now runs a top-notch personal security business, to take the case. But Andrews turns the job down. She’s had dangerous encounters in Hawai`i in the past—two, in fact—and won’t go near the place. But she does offer to send two of her operatives.

The trio arrives at the remote ranch where Rodrigues has stashed Alves and start work. Before long, there’s another attempt to kill him, a long-distance rifle shot that barely misses. The police arrive to investigate, but get nowhere. It’s clear that protecting Alves will depend on identifying who really murdered the woman. Rodrigues suspects her policeman husband.

This would be an entertaining book to take on a Hawaiian vacation, in real life or the armchair variety. The number of towns and locales where this investigation takes Rodrigues and crew is like a travelogue. Tucher’s characters are confronted with significant logistical difficulties and road hazards—smoldering lava, deep gorges, torrential rain that turns unpaved roads to mud fields—but his easygoing writing style moves them along smoothly.

Information that Don Savage has been investigated by internal affairs for shaking down prostitutes starts Rodrigues and crew on the trail of a different motive and reveals a much larger crime in the background. Then the body of a prostitute washes up near the town of Kalapana, and Diana Andrews can help after all, mining her contacts within the relatively small sorority of high-end escorts.

This is a short book (only 129 pages), and I can’t say more about its fast-paced plot without revealing too much. Despite its brevity—another feature that makes for great vacation reading—it’s filled with colorful characters who reflect the diversity of Hawaiians’ ethnic and cultural backgrounds. And how does Rodrigues become an honorary Jersey Girl, itself practically another ethnicity? Like anything else gets done these days: connections.

Photo: Emilia, creative commons license

David Crosby: Remember My Name

This A J Eaton documentary (trailer), released so close in time to Echo in the Canyon, covers some of the same ground and personalities, but in a totally different way. Echo is about the musician-heavy Laurel Canyon area in a brief period of the mid-sixties. This film, by contrast, examines one man’s career and his musical and cultural influence over a lifetime, and it shares a fair amount of that music with you.

As to cultural influences, in a poignant coincidence, the film tells how Dennis Hopper modeled the character of Billy in the film Easy Rider on Crosby. It was bittersweet seeing clips from the film so soon after its star Peter Fonda died (a young Jack Nicholson too).

In the documentary, David Crosby says he’s 76 years old, has eight stents in his heart, diabetes, a liver transplant—in short, a load of health problems. “How is it you’re still alive?” he’s asked, when so many others are not. There’s no answer to that, and he doesn’t attempt one.

Yet he’s still making music, still releasing albums as recently as last year. He’s touring. His life is music. It’s too bad he shot himself in the foot so many times with his band mates in the Byrds, and Crosby Stills Nash, with and without Young. His behavior was terrible, but it was in Echo that he said point-blank that Stills, Nash, and Young dumped him “because I was an a——.” Subsequently, acrimony has repeatedly thwarted the group’s attempts to reassemble.

He doesn’t spare himself or make excuses. What emerges from the many hours of interviews with Cameron Crowe, who’s known the musician for 45 years, is compelling viewing. Jon Bream in the Minneapolis Star Tribune says, “Rarely have we seen such an unvarnished, unflattering and revealingly real portrait of a music star.”

Echo was dinged for not including Joni Mitchell (she came later, the filmmakers said), but you see plenty of her here. Crosby saw her perform in Florida and brought her to Los Angeles, but as with most of his relationships with women, theirs was fraught. He blames himself. In 1969, his girlfriend Christine Hinton was killed in an auto accident, and Graham Nash (if I remember correctly) said that after Crosby identified her body, he was never the same. Since 1987, he’s been married to Jan Dance.

Asked whether he has regrets, he admitted to big ones, mainly the wasted decade as a junkie, which led to lost music and lost potential. Time, he says, is the ultimate currency. “Be careful how you spend it.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 91%; audiences: 92%.