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Monday, December 14, 2009


Outof the night that covers me,

Black as the Pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance

I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeonings of chance

My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears

Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll.

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.

William Ernest Henley

Nelson Mandela (played by Morgan Freeman) survives 27 years of imprisonment. His guide is the Victorian age poem Invictus. He emerges to lead a reconciliation of blacks and whites into a new South Africa. Matt Damon plays the captain of the countries white dominated and beloved rugby team. The team is also a symbol of white racism and despised by the nations blacks. Clint Eastwood finds just the right touch, avoiding an over the top sports movie and a deep psychological analyses of character motivations. The result is exciting action in a sport that most American wouldn't have a clue about, and a truly dramatic portrayal of real political leadership. It was also something that I found downright inspiring. I recall teaching world history to my senior high students and feeling that the apartheid state in South Africa was as intractible a problem as the issue of Palestine, the Arabs and the Jewish state. Sometimes it's nice to be wrong.

I highly recommend this movie.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Zookeeper's Wife, A War Story

I was at the mall, taking a shortcut thru Barnes and Nobel, determined not to stop. I stop and its an hour or two delay and more money spent on books than I should. And, of course, I stopped .....
The title that caught my passing eye intrigued me. It was The Zookeeper's Wife. Perhaps, it was a recent movie review I had done on these pages that inspired me to take a look. The movie was The Time Travelers Wife. I had wrote that it was just "ok" and panned its "silly, romanticized, and trivial" plot. The kinder comments on that review were, to the effect that, if I had previously read the book, I would have better understood and appreciated the movie. Ouch! This time I read the book first and hope that somebody makes a great movie about it. It certainly deserves it.

Diane Ackerman's The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story (W. W. Norton) has been selected to receive the 2008 Orion Book Award, which is conferred annually to a book that deepens our connection to the natural world, presents new ideas about our relationship with nature, and achieves excellence in writing.
"The Zookeepers Wife is a groundbreaking work of nonfiction,"said selection committee member Mark Kurlansky, "in which the human relationship to nature is explored in an absolutely original way through looking at the Holocaust." Kathleen Dean Moore, the committee's chairperson, said: "A few years ago, 'nature' writers were asking themselves, How can a book be at the same time a work of art, an act of conscientious objection to the destruction of the world, and an affirmation of hope and human decency? The Zookeeper's Wife answers this question."
Books about World War II and The American Civil War are among my favorite historical topics. I used to read a lot of novels but in recent years, the writing of history and biography have been elevated far beyond that of the novelists. The reasons why I will save for another post.
The Zookeeper’s Wife is set in the time and place of The Holocaust and the Warsaw Ghetto. Few readers will casually pick up a book on this topic. I never shy away. Believing that generations for all time should never never be allowed to forget what happened, when evil on a scale never imagined, ran unchecked for years. You brace yourself and then read because you must. And yet this book left me feeling good. It even inspired me at times. I hesitate to write this about a book dealing with these horrible events, but at the core it is a story about
humanity at its very best. Diane Ackerman, famous poet, essayist, and naturalist tells a wonderful tale here. And it’s a true story carefully researched and based on fact.

The book begins in the mid-1930s, when a young couple, Antonina and Jan Zabinski, were the directors of Warsaw's zoo.
The zoo was destroyed during the Nazi bombardment of Warsaw in 1939. Surviving animals were shot "for fun" by rampaging soldiers led by the director of the Berlin zoo.
Jan immediately joined the resistance. Smuggling food into the Ghetto, building bombs, sabotage and many dangerous acts were part of his daily life.

"Equally important, Jan and Antonina opened their home and the zoo to partisans and Jews, some of whom were smuggled out of the ghetto by Jan himself. The Zabinskis hid their "Guests" in closets, rooms and even the old animal cages; in the course of the Nazi occupation, they helped approximately 300 women, men and children. And Antonina insisted, throughout, on maintaining a festive, music-filled household, even as she and Jan lived with the constant threat of exposure, torture and death, not just for themselves but for their young son, too.
In Ackerman's telling, it was Antonina's connection to the animal world -- her belief that every living thing is entitled to life, respect and nurture -- that made her incapable, despite her own terrors, of turning away from suffering. Nazi ideology, obsessed with categorization, hierarchy and uniformity, was incomprehensible to Antonina, who delighted in life's messy, rambunctious diversity.
A story like this could easily devolve into Dr. Doolittle-like sentimentality. Ackerman avoids mawkishness in two ways. First, the horrors of the Holocaust seep into almost every page, just as they should. The Zabinski household may have maintained a determined joyful air, but we never forget that the Guests' time in the ghetto has transformed them from accomplished, vibrant people into broken, hunted prey: "shipwrecked souls," Antonina called them in her diary. Equally important, Ackerman refuses to romanticize nature. She knows that the animal world is full of -- in fact, depends upon -- deception and violence, and that a person's immersion in the natural world is no guarantee of goodness."

The Zookeepers Wife is a fascinating book. I highly recommend it.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Julie & Julia

Meryl Streep is Julia Child, and Amy Adams is Julie Powell in writer-director Nora Ephron's adaptation of two bestselling memoirs: Powell's Julie & Julia and Child’s My Life In France.

A movie about cooking. Well, probably not for my taste (bad bad). On the other hand, anything with the greatest actress of our generation in it, Meryl Streep, can’t be a total waste. So we went. In any case, we were meeting our good friends from the Twin Cities for the movie and dinner. Now, dinner is something that can get my attention anytime.
I did know who Julia Child was, having seen her on TV. Years ago, I used to watch her before "reality and garbage" took over the boob tube. Julie the blogger, I didn’t know at all, being somewhat of a late-comer to that genre myself.

Some of the critics were saying that Julie's story could have been left out. She, the blogger, apparently has some personal characteristics the reviewers didn't like. Streep, of course, wasn’t just doing a great job acting, the Julia part.... she WAS Julia Child. I agreed with that.
The story is simple enough. Two women of different generations turn to cooking and writing as a life fulfillment.
They, according to the film, were both happily married to supportive husbands. Julie idolizes Julia. Although for each, the focus is on a different era, their parallel lives overlap in the sense of the path they have chosen.
There is a scene at the end of the film that is somewhat shocking but I'm not going to reveal it here, so as not to spoil it for those who haven't seen it yet.

This movie is a pure joy. I’m still smiling as I write this. There were many laughs and a few tears along the way. Streep as Julia was amazing. Take the time to see this movie. You won’t be disappointed.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Fourth of July

A new American celebrating the Fourth Of July with her older brother in Colorado.Going to a play.
Canoeing and hiking in the mountains with Dad, Mom, Hercules and Spring. What fun!

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Naval War Heroes

Evan Thomas takes us inside the naval war of 1941-1945 in the South Pacific in a way that tells personal stories, gives us cultural insights and explains this greatest of all naval wars. Four men provide the tableau upon which the tale is told.

Admiral Bull Halsey is well known to students of the Pacific War. He gave America a needed boost of confidence with his hard charging attitude in the dark days after Pearl Harbor. His courage, foibles and failings add depth to an understanding of his war hero image and racist attitudes before, during and after the war.

Admiral Matome Ugaki is in some respects Halsey's counterpart in the Japanese Navy. How Japanese culture of the early 20th century shaped this man into a suicidal fanatic, willing to sacrifice a whole nation for a bizarre conception of "honor," is hard to understand. Evans comes close to making sense out of it.

Commander Ernest Evans, a Cherokee Indian and Annapolis graduate who led his destroyer on the last great charge in the last great naval battle in history was somewhat known to me. A Medal of Honor recipient for his acts of bravery and leadership in the battle of Leyte Gulf, he overcame extreme poverty and prejudice to become a naval officer before the war. Knowing the story of his defense of the carriers of Taffy 3, I had always admired him as a great hero and still do.... and yet while all of his surviving crew, to this day speak highly of him, some will admit he may have gone too far. With his tiny destroyers ammunition all gone and the ship ablaze, he continued to attack the largest battleships ever built.

Admiral Takeo Kurita, the Japanese battleship commander charged with making what was, in essence, a suicidal fleet attack against the American invasion of the Philippines is the most intriguing of all. By means of a clever deception, which put Bull Halsey reputation at risk, Kurita's force of battleships fought and destroyed a portion of a smaller and outgunned American naval force in a night battle in Leyte Gulf. Then faced with the prospect of being annihilated by the power of Halsey's overwhelming carrier force, he choose a "mysterious retreat" in violation of his orders. In Evans words, he was later praised after the war as a "seaman of seamen," but never honored for "his humaneness, as a commander, who chose not to foolishly waste the lives of his men in a grand but empty act of bushido."

I don't think one has to be particularly interested in refighting old battles from WWII to learn something worthwhile from from Evan Thomas's latest book. The vagaries of courage and honor in the face of cultural imperatives are a subject for any era. Think of things like the "doctine of preemption" as a basis for a national foreign policy or "enhanced interrogation" as best means of protecting our national security.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Coming To America

A little over a year ago she arrived in Denver airport to her new home in America, She was malnourished and naturally looking a little apprehensive. The adoption agency said she was about 2 1/2 years old. She knew only a few words of English.

She has grown four inches in the year since and when I talk to her on the phone, if I didn't know better, you would think she had been speaking English all her life. "Hi grandpa. How you guys doing?" etc. She had several birthday parties this past year as her true age gradually became apparent. Amazingly, the experts and her preschool said she was ready for kindergarten next year.

During our recent visit we got to see her play soccer. Here she is getting some quick sideline pointers from her dad.
This girl can run like the wind. Based on what I saw, and being completely impartial, I am projecting her for the American Women's Olympic soccer team in 2028. Or maybe Miss Congeniality a few years earlier. In any case, welcome to America Tensae. We love you.