The Exploitation of Tigers–by Writers!

Western writers have exploited the tiger, says Aditi Natasha Kini in a Literary Hub essay, that goes on to illustrate the interplay of literature and wildlife mismanagement.

Authors have been mesmerized by the elusive tiger’s beauty, stunned by its cunning, and fascinated by its ferocity. Whereas a lion is social and, according to no less a wildlife expert than Gunther Gebel-Williams, tends to want to get along; tigers don’t care about you, not even about each other at times, as the recent London Zoo tragedy attests.

Alas, our fascination has been deadly for the tigers. “Do you want to kill them because you are afraid—or because you covet their power?” Kini asks.

Hard to believe in this era of heightened consciousness that a New York Times South Asia bureau chief “a few months ago,” Kini says, started writing admiringly about the hunt for a tiger deemed menacing to Indian villages. Despite the editor’s “several breathless articles,” certainly this writing did not generate the bloodlust of a century ago, when an estimated 80,000 tigers were slaughtered between 1875 and 1925.

Kini draws a connection between this murderous spree and the vilification of tigers in literature and popular culture. They came to be portrayed as evil, monstrous, and murderous. Jungle creatures, “especially sinewy marvels of evolution with massive jaws and impressive, though cryptic abilities, became a vivid metaphor for the wild—and the colonial drive to conquer it.”

The near-extermination of wild tigers becomes another environmental depredation that naturally devolves from what Kini calls “the narrative of human supremacy.” Now, one legacy of that narrative contributes to global warming, and the habitat loss likely to result will provide a further threat to the species.

The World Wildlife Fund’s estimate that more tigers live in U.S. backyards than in the wild has received fairly wide publicity. Nevertheless, four states—Alabama, Nevada, North Carolina, and Wisconsin—have no laws at all about keeping dangerous wild animals as “pets,” including this week in an abandoned Houston garage. The reduced circumstances in which many of these animals live is the exact opposite of the iconic creatures of fiction. Unless, of course, you’re writing tragedy.

I highly recommend John Vaillant’s page-turner of a book about the Amur tigers of far eastern Russia, The Tiger. It’s non-fiction, and the action is heart-stopping.

Tiger photo: Damian Moore, creative commons license

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Hollywood Investigates Journalism: 2019 Edition

While a bright line has traditionally separated news and entertainment media, that line is getting a little blurred around the edges. In a presentation this week at the Princeton Public Library, entertaining film historian Max Alvarez showed clips of real newscasters playing their professional selves in television dramas and fictional newscasters appearing on real news shows. You have to wonder whether this is a good idea when the media are under a constant “fake news” assault.

Since the early days of Hollywood, the industry has wanted its products lauded and its stars burnished and its scandals muffled. It loves news coverage that manages that. Likewise, the print media likes movies that portray journalists in a positive light, and it has withheld coverage of movies that didn’t, letting them sink into obscurity.

Fictional news outlets, reporters, and issues are one thing, but what happens when Hollywood tackles reality? Since the 1970’s, stories about real journalists at real newspapers have had extra punch because they were rooted in real events. Top of mind: The Washington Post and Watergate in All the President’s Men (1976), and The Boston Globe and child-abusing priests in Spotlight (2015), two films similar in making the tedium of reporting—the phone calls, the notes, the record checks—dramatic and compelling, Alvarez noted. In them, the journalist is romanticized as a seeker of truth, despite the political pressures of corporate owners, advertisers, and the legal department.

The Post, Meryl Streep

Those pressures are front and center in the biopic, The Post (2017), which focused on a pivotal decision by Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham. The 2005 biopic Good Night, and Good Luck. portrays the conflict between veteran broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow and U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy in the early 1950s. In both films, the journalist is the hero.

A film about a real-life journalist that did not put the news media in a good light was the aptly titled Kill the Messenger (2014), which perhaps you’ve never heard of (trailer). In 1996, Gary Webb, a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, developed a series about links between the CIA, the Nicaraguan Contras and the crack cocaine flooding the United States. The big papers, perhaps incensed at being scooped, attacked his reporting, then him. His paper withdrew its support. Fed up, Webb quit and wrote the book Dark Alliance. (Note that subsequent revelations have vindicated many of his claims.) Television news people aren’t all heroes either. The Insider (1999) detailed how CBS agonized about whether to air a 60 Minutes segment with tobacco-industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand.

Although the editorial decisions in these films—whether to attack Joe McCarthy or the tobacco industry or whether to publish the Pentagon Papers or continue investigating Watergate or claims of priests’ sexual abuse of children—may seem obvious in retrospect, these films do a service by showing how difficult they really were. You can imagine similar soul-searching under way in newsrooms around the country today faced with the pressures of imperfect information and relentless attack.

Three Minute Book Reviews

Tarot cards

You can read that headline two ways and either works. I enjoyed all three of these books, out of my usual crime fiction lane.

****The Immortalists

Chloe Benjamin’s accomplished 2018 novel details the lives of four siblings who, as children, visit a fortune teller who reveals the date they will die. We follow them then, in turn, and the question is, did her predictions engage them as accomplices in creating self-fulfilling prophecies, or was she simply right? The career of the younger daughter, Klara, who becomes an accomplished magician, was the most intriguing to me. Named “one of the best books of the year” by many sources.

****The Book Thief

Probably you read Markus Zusak’s 2005 best-seller when it first came out, but I missed both book and movie. Children (again) in a small town outside Munich face the coming of World War II—the paranoia, the excitement, the vicious militants. Liesel’s mother has left her nine-year-old daughter in the care of Rosa and Hans Hubermann. The deepening relationship between Liesel and her foster parents—both kindly Hans and foul-mouthed, foul-tempered Rosa—is a joy.

They take in someone much more dangerous too. There’s a Jew in the basement, son of the man Hans owes his life to. Just as I’d become immersed in the story, Death, a 20,000-foot observer of the book’s events, would intrude and pull me out again. I came to appreciate him as a character, though not these constant interruptions.

***Midnight Blue

Another historical novel is Simone van der Blugt’s 2018 book, her first published in the United States. In 1654, the young widow Catrin leaves her small village to seek her fortune and leave behind the suspicions about her role in her husband’s death. In Amsterdam, she finds work as housekeeper to the wealthy Van Nulandt family. Madame Van Nulandt takes painting lessons from a local master, Rembrandt van Rijn, but Catrin, it turns out, is the real artist in the household. The secret of her husband’s death returns, however, and her struggle to make a successful life despite all shows plenty of pluck and talent. Translated by Jenny Watson.

Photo: Meg Lessard, creative commons license

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The Niceties

The title of this political drama by playwright Eleanor Burgess is ironic, as few niceties are demonstrated. Instead, the play, which had its opening night at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre on January 19 and runs through February 10, is an increasingly intense verbal duel between its two characters. As directed by Kimberly Senior, the tension never falters.

White college history professor Janine (played by Lisa Banes) is trying to help her African American student Zoe (Jordan Boatman) improve a paper that sets out a radical reinterpretation of the circumstances of the Revolutionary War. Janine isn’t willing to accept websites as authoritative sources, and Zoe isn’t willing to accept the conventional sources that ignore so much—regarding the lives of the slaves, especially.

They both make cogent arguments, but their disagreement is in part a matter of frame of reference. Janine is arguing from the point of view of a political historian, to whom the thoughts and actions of leaders who have left a paper trail constitute “history.” Zoe is arguing for more of a social history approach that includes the lives of all people, even those who did not and could not write their own stories. To Zoe, a few mentions of these other experiences won’t do it; she wants a panoramic approach that seeks to understand it all. The argument over Zoe’s essay soon turns personal and has significant fallout for them both.

Banes and Boatman have been doing this show since August, first at Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company, then at The Manhattan Theatre Club, and they have polished their performances to a fine degree. Banes epitomizes the condescension of the professor explaining how the world works, and Boatman the arrogance of youth, convinced that even her most extreme positions are true and right. As a result, the characters they play excel in talking past each other, and if there’s a profound message for society today, it’s the need to learn to listen, especially to people who view the world differently.

McCarter Theatre is easily reached from New York by car or train (New Jersey Transit to the Princeton Junction station, then the shuttle bus into Princeton. The shuttle ends a short walk from the theater and the university’s new arts district, as well as two innovative new restaurants. For tickets, call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the ticket office online.

Production photo: T. Charles Erickson

Weekend Movie Picks – 1/18-1/20

Green Book

By now you may have heard of the Shirley family’s reservations about director Peter Farrelly’s movie, despite its winning a Golden Globe for best motion picture (trailer). Based on a true story, the script was written by Nick Vallelonga, Peter Farrelly, and Brian Currie, who won a Golden Globe for best screenplay

There’s no faulting the acting, Mahershala Ali (Golden Globe) portraying sophisticated jazz pianist Don Shirley, and Viggo Mortensen as his rough-around-the-edges and racist chauffeur, (Nick Vallelonga in real life), are both tops.

They embark on a concert tour of the Deep South in the early 1960s, before the Civil Rights movement, and encounter all the expected restrictions, slights, and prejudices. And that was part of the problem. I’d already imagined, known about, and seen these situations in many other films back when this type of content was an eye-opener.

I fear it gives today’s white people a too-easy win, encouraging us to think “I’m sure glad I’m not like those Southern racists.” Racism can’t be just put in a drawer as if a piece of the past that no longer needs attention. Black Americans traveling today still encounter racism.

Perhaps a new generation needs these reminders, and perhaps younger people will take from the film the powerful lesson that connection and friendship and respect can grow between people who are so unlike each other. That’s something to hope for.Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 81%; audiences 94%.

On the Basis of Sex

Having seen and enjoyed the documentary RBG, I was prepared tro be disappointed in Hollywood’s version of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s career, directed by Mimi Leder with a script by Daniel Stiepleman (trailer). To my delight, I was not. Felicity Jones as RBG and Armie Hammer as her devoted and amazingly patient husband Marty do a fine job, Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux) of the ACLU is busy being political, and the courts are against her, but Ruth soldiers on to victory (as we know beforehand). I particularly liked the scene where opposing counsel waved a list of the hundreds of U.S. statutes that applied differently to women, thinking to show how “normal” the practice was, and RBG instead used it to show the practice was pervasive and pernicious.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 71%; audiences 72%.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Haven’t heard of this one? Me neither, until I found it in the Academy Award shortlist of nominees for song and music. This Coen Brothers experiment appeared ever-so-briefly in theaters then went straight to Netflix (trailer).

It’s an anthology of six short stories, alike only in the brothers’ trademark dark vision and black humor, and it won the best screenplay award at the Venice International Film Festival. There’s music too, of the cowboy lament variety.

Each of the six tales has its own cast, including Tim Blake Nelson (Buster Scruggs), Liam Neeson, James Franco, Brendan Gleeson, Zoe Kazan, Tyne Daly, Tom Waits, and Bill Heck.

There is violence, of course, but most of it is cartoonish. While there’s humor, there’s wistful sadness as well. Most memorable, I think, is the story “Meal Ticket,” in which a young man with no arms and legs but a wonderful voice for oratory (Harry Melling) performs for a dwindling audience of shantytown residents. In the story, “All Gold Canyon,” featuring Tom Waits, you’ll see the most beautiful valley imaginable.Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 92%; audiences: 77%

Genes and Genealogy

An unexpected delight of my stumbling genealogy researches has been discovering and re-discovering my cousins. Most of my father’s family lived geographically close to me when I was growing up, but as far as getting to know them–they might as well have been a thousand miles away.

My dad was the son of Hungarian immigrants who came separately to the United States in the early 1900s, met, married, lived in Michigan where my grandfather was a farmer and an autoworker. They had 15 children, 11 of whom survived to adulthood. They didn’t talk about their immigration experience. At all.

Online research added to the picture. The naturalization record for my grandfather, Ferencz Hegyi (with the last name spelled six different ways on two government forms), provided the date of his arrival and name of the ship he came on (the S.S. Chicago). He applied for naturalization after being in America for some years, and it listed children’s names, leaving no doubt this record was for my family.

From the ship manifest I found his father’s name—Ferencz, or Frank, the same as his—and the village he came from. Wow! My great-grandfather’s name and a definite place, Kondorfa. Still today Kondorfa has only a few more than 600 residents. It’s in far western Hungary, closer to Vienna and Bratislava than Budapest, in a German-Hungarian area called the Burgenland. Short of learning to speak Magyar and traveling there, my researches seemed to be bumping up against the proverbial brick wall.

One additional clue from the ship manifest was that Ferencz’s destination was South Bethlehem, Pa. Probably he planned to work at Bethlehem Steel, following in the footsteps of his older brother. I found a 1923 death certificate for 38-year-old Peter Hegyi from Kondorfa who died after being struck in the chest by a bar of steel. The certificate listed his parents’ names, Ferencz Hegyi and Julianna Fabian. Now I had my great-grandmother’s name too. But there my research string ran out.

In Your Genes

People ask me whether having a genetic profile helps with genealogy, and I always say yes! I spit into a cup for 23andMe many years ago. A couple of distant cousins on my mother’s side have contacted me, all having useful connections and information. Then, a few months ago, the surprise. A woman living near Bethlehem contacted me after noting our slight genetic match and the Hegyi name, which is found frequently in the area her family came from.

This distant cousin has website Jane’s Genes (very useful general/tips, too), and some careful research on Jane’s part revealed she’s my fifth cousin, once removed. Our common ancestors are my great-great-great-great grandparents Janos Herczeg (b 1747) and Rozalia Horvath (b 1755).

Jane has put me in touch with other cousins in Pennsylvania and the Midwest. I learned one of my grandfather’s younger sisters immigrated to South Bethlehem as well, and I’ve connected with her granddaughter. Our Midwest cousin is another genius at deciphering the spidery handwriting in the old Hungarian and Church records. Thanks to her diligence, I can now trace my grandfather’s family back six generations, to ancestors born in the early 1700s.

I’ve shared my written history of the Hegyi family, sparse though it is, with about a dozen first cousins—children of my father’s generation—and now regularly visit several of them in Indiana and Michigan. I didn’t have addresses for them all, though, and again 23andMe came through. The granddaughter of my Uncle Bill got in touch and, through her, I’ve communicated with her mother, my first cousin.

When I started working on family history, what I expected to explore was “history”; now I’ve learned it’s about “family” too.

Don’t forget to watch “Finding Our Roots” on PBS Tuesdays, 8 p.m., hosted by Henry Louis Gates. Every family has a story!

Stuff I Learned Lately and How I Learned It

Woodrow Wilson's Princeton Home

Woodrow Wilson’s house in Princeton cost about $35,000 to build and is now—rough-guessing here—worth about 100 times that — I learned this at a library benefit dinner at the actual house, featuring a talk by U-Mich professor Patricia O’Toole, who has a new Wilson biography: The Moralist. (Wilson promoted  the neo-Tudor architectural style, and you see it all over town)

Just because an online course is about a subject I’m deeply interested in doesn’t mean the course itself will be interesting — learned during sessions 1 & 2 of a 3-part online course about genetics in genealogy

How to tell llamas and alpacas apart – at Jersey Shore Alpacas (e.g., llamas are bigger and have perkier ears)

There was a founding father before the Founding Fathers and, though the British called him “the greatest incendiary in all America,” he’s practically forgotten – a lecture at the fantastic David Library of the American Revolution by Christian di Spigna, author of Founding Martyr: The Life and Death of Dr.Joseph Warren

Not all NYC crime writers sport sleeve tattoos – disabused of this impression at the December Noir at the Bar readathon

It took about 1300 years for medical science to reacquire the knowledge lost when the Alexandria library complex was destroyed – adult ed course on Egypt

Ron Chernow (and thus the musical Hamilton) probably got a couple of the more risqué situations in his book wrong – also at the David Library, in a talk by Tilar Mazzeo, author of the new book, Eliza Hamilton

 I may be exhibiting early manifestations of that old person’s “no filter” problem – you don’t want to know

The black stockings and tights I’ve been wearing since Thanksgiving are navy – daylight.

A Sea of Blistered Tongues

Richard III, Laurence Olivier

Laurence Olivier as Richard III

Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt made an absorbing presentation last week, here in Princeton, based on his new book, Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics. What Shakespeare has to say about pretty much any domain of human behavior is worth thinking about, and Greenblatt’s current preoccupation was clearly shared by his receptive audience.

He edged into the topic by describing how Shakespeare has been used in many countries and settings as a screen on which people may project their views about their own leaders—views that very often would cost them their freedom or more, if stated directly. Shakespeare’s notable tyrants—Macbeth, Coriolanus, Lear, and, especially, Richard III—become stand-ins for narcissistic demagogues across time and geography.

He highlighted the would-be king (and real-life character) Jack Cade, who appears in 2 Henry VI, as a populist leader deploying eerily familiar tactics. In Shakespeare’s dialog, Cade makes blatantly absurd promises to the rabble he incites, to wit:

“There shall be in England seven half-penny loaves sold for a penny;

The three-hooped pot shall have ten hoops;

And I will make it a felony to drink small [weak] beer. . . .

There shall be no money; all shall eat and drink on my score;

And I will apparel them all in one livery,

That they may agree like brothers and worship me their lord.”

This peroration is followed by what Greenblatt supposed (correctly in my case) was the only line most people can quote from that particular play, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” Greenblatt says that, while the cheering rabble could not have truly believed these extravagant promises, their support for Cade was unwavering. Not until scheming Macbeth is exposed as a regicide and murderer, does Malcolm regret his former loyalty, saying, “This tyrant, whose sole name blisters our tongues, was once thought honest.”

Shakespeare’s tyrants arise in eras when, as the book blurb summarizes, “Cherished institutions seem fragile, political classes are in disarray, economic misery fuels populist anger, people knowingly accept being lied to, partisan rancor dominates, spectacular indecency rules.” Such fraught times inspired Shakespeare, as did the tyrants’ narcissistic personalities and the “cynicism and opportunism of the various enablers and hangers-on” surrounding them. These same forces, personalities, and motives give his work continued relevance.

Greenblatt sounded a discouraging note in saying that, while Shakespeare was brilliant at portraying causes and effects in his history plays, he does not point a way to solutions. “There aren’t any good ones,” he said. Yet, remarkably, civilization survived these conflicts and setbacks. On a more positive note, he concluded that what Shakespeare also teaches us is, “We are not alone.”

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Don’t Miss! Detroit ’67

Detroit '67

photo: T. Charles Erickson

Just a few more performances of McCarter Theatre’s stunning production of Detroit ’67, directed by Jade King Carroll and on stage through October 28. The summer of 1967 is unforgettable for native Detroiters such as myself, and I’ve looked forward to seeing what light playwright Dominique Morisseau would shine on that bleak page in history. Morisseau is a 2018 MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” recipient and the third most-produced playwright in the country at the moment, so my expectations were high.
They were certainly met, with this powerful story and strong cast. In her story, sister and brother Chelle (played by Myxolydia Tyler) and Lank (Johnny Ramey) have inherited the family home in Detroit, and Chelle is using her portion of their parents’ savings to send her son to the Tuskegee Institute. Lank and his best friend Sylvester (Will Cobbs) have other plans. They want to buy a bar. This would be a big step up from the low-budget blind pig (unlicensed drinking establishment) Lank and Chelle operate in their basement, which is the set for the play.
The Detroit Police Department is going through a repressive period, in which tactical squads of four police officers terrorize, intimidate, and assault residents. If the police discover the blind pig, Chelle and Lank are in deep trouble. Contraction in the auto industry and a significant population decline have decreased economic opportunities for the city’s residents, another reason Lank and Sly want to strike out on their own.
The unexpected presence of the white woman in the household gives the characters a chance to talk about the difference in choices available to them. Chelle is deeply, angrily disappointed that her brother has, in her view, “squandered” the family inheritance—an opinion manifesting in events when the city begins to burn.
Although these are heavy subjects, Morisseau lightens the mood with the humorous efforts of Sly to romance Chelle, and the observations of her best friend Bunny (Nyahale Allie).
It’s also a story about the power of dreams and the importance of having them, and although these insights are not new, the precarious situation of the protagonists makes them all the more pointed. The fact that half a century later the play’s issues regularly resurface in the daily news underscores their continuing importance and well worth seeing.
The theater has put together a rich set of background resources that includes—of course!—a Spotify playlist that leads off with The Temptations’ “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.” Find it here!
McCarter Theatre is easily reached from New York by car or train (New Jersey Transit to the Princeton Junction station, then the shuttle train into Princeton. The shuttle ends a short walk from the theater and the university’s new arts district, as well as two innovative new restaurants.
For tickets, call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the ticket office online.

Sicily: Beyond (and Before) the Corleones – Travel Tips

Agrigento - Temple of Concordia

Agrigento – Temple of Concordia, public domain

Our two-week trip to Sicily ended recently, and what an interesting and beautiful region it was. The food was pretty spectacular too. We traveled with a British tour company called Esplora, and if you’re looking for a recommendation, this is one. Esplora and its founder Damian Croft, specialize in small-group tours of several Mediterranean countries, as well as Armenia, Georgia, and, soon, Iran.

There were a dozen of us on the tour, six Brits, an Australian couple, and four Americans. We had two charming guides (Chiara and Simona) and our irreplaceable driver/major domo, Carmelo. Our guides were language and art history specialists. How nice, I thought, in advance. How essential, I’d say now. Here’s why (and before I go on, I’ll tip you that we saw the impressive architectural remnants of all these civilizations.)

The earliest tribes in Sicily, the Sicani, documented to around 8000 BC, were followed by the Sicels and some minor groups. They lived in caves, and some of their caves are still in use for storage, as shelters for goats and chickens, and in extremis, habitation.

Sicily was a crossroads of the ancient world, and for at least some period, Siracusa was the most important city in Europe. This importance began with the arrival of the Greeks, who set up independent colonies in Siracusa, Agrigento, and elsewhere. Domination of the island was passed back and forth in practically nonstop wars between the Greeks, Romans (who established colonies under Roman authority), and barbarians, namely, the Germanic Vandals and Ostrogoths.

The Byzantines annexed Sicily in 535 AD, and were harassed by invading Arabs from Carthage (now Tunisia) in north Africa. Next came the Normans—yes, those same Normans who invaded England in 1066. This was a surprise! They established liberal government, tolerant of the many ethnicities and religions who lived on the island. That couldn’t last, of course.

Swabian Germans took over, followed by an insurrection to remove the French (Normans) and the people turned to the Spanish for aid. The Spanish Inquisition in 1492 resulted in expulsion of all the Jews from Sicily and other depredations. In the next two hundred years, the island also suffered devastating earthquakes, and the plague.

The Bourbons were next, with Sicily fighting on France’s side in the Napoleonic Wars. Guiseppe Garibaldi had a strong presence in Sicily in his successful effort to unite the separate regions of Italy into a united Kingdom of Italy (1861).

In the 20th century, assaulted first by waves of crime from the Mafia then invaded by the Allies in 1943, this little island of less than 10,000 square miles—not much larger than the state of New Jersey—was once again at the crossroads of history.

Historians will shudder at the elisions and probable errors in the above. Whole books have been written about this, of course, and here’s a really good one:

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Read my new short story in Quoth The Raven, an anthology of new works based on the style and sensibility of Edgar Allan Poe. For how to order it, click here.