“The West say God is Dead, and now they want me to bury him,” the Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran, 1978.
Writing this column is sometimes difficult. This is one of these times. Like it or not, we are in a “clash of civilizations,” and have been so for most of our life on this planet. After the unprecedented devastation of the Second World War, and the birth of The Bomb, that could wipe all of us off the map, many thoughtful souls felt that if we could just dispense with those things that divide us, we could survive our own demise, by our own hands.
This was not a new idea. As Pankaj Mishra points out in his new book, Age of Anger: A History of the Present, “A religious or medieval society was one in which the social, political and economic order seemed unchangeable, and the poor and the oppressed attributed their suffering either to fortuitous happenings—ill luck, bad health, unjust rulers—or to the will of God. The idea that suffering could be relieved, and happiness engineered, by men radically changing the social order belongs to the Eighteenth century. The ambitious philosophers of the Enlightenment brought forth the idea of a perfectible society – a Heaven on Earth rather than an afterlife.”
The philosophers of the Enlightenment, were right about one thing: foremost among that which divided us and had caused more deaths that anything else is organized religion. It has been our great cross to bear. So, Postwar Western Europe began a journey to make secular societies, the new religion.
One example they looked to was the old Soviet Union, which outright banned religion. But, like what we still have in Cuba, China, and North Korea, this new religion that the Soviets offered was enforced at the point of a gun.
Gradually, Western Europe was able to put together a more user-friendly version of secularism. The big difference between what they came up with, unlike the ham-fisted Russians, was they understood human psychology better and were able to imposed a politically correct narrative on the people they now governed.
(Of course, there were always the two-fisted, red faced Donald Trumps, sitting on the sidelines, seething with anger.)
Now, it seems that secular culture, which had been growing steadily, is being confronted all over the world by the old order of religion as the primary arbiter of human behavior.
What this augurs for the future, I have no idea. I do know, that until this clash between the secularists and the religious folks stops, we are in perilous times.
Once again, thank you for clicking on to us.
At an out-of-control medical center in NYC, HR manager, Melie, pleads feverishly with buttock-groping doctors and their flaky staff to just get along. But then there's a little murder, a cancer, a handsome devil and his evil parrot, a knife-wielding cook. She's not quitting until she has it all sorted out —the hunk, the macaw, her life work—and neither will you!
Who Killed These Girls?: Cold Case: The Yogurt Shop Murders by Beverly Lowry is the perfect book to read on a cross-country flight, especially a flight during the holidays in winter when you’re trying to leave Montana in a snow-storm and get severely delayed (when it’s time for the pity party.)
As the airline attendants related the crushing news in breezy monotones (we are delaying the flight for three hours!) as the kids roamed the airport in search of gum, magazines, bathrooms, and chicken, I was indeed lost. I mean mesmerized by this thick, ruminative book.
True crime. Not a genre I usually seek out, but why? After all, I love television crime (The Fall, The Killing, re-runs of Law & Order), but, I always thought of true crime novels as well…tacky. Perhaps (even as I sit here in my office, I try to cover the book and expose an innocent, never-read Tao of Pooh instead). I do not—and, at this moment—want to defend the book by calling it “literary.” What does that mean anyway? But, what I can say is that the writing is good—very good.
My husband who bought me the book (I guess he knows my taste better than I do) and reminded me that we had met the author at a party in Missoula many moons ago. But, I have to say that one grad school party slipped into the next, and I have no clear recollection of meeting Beverly Lowry. I wondered if she was considered a “Montana writer.” However, I cannot say based on a scant, superficial Google search whether the West claims her as its own. She lived in Montana, yes, but, was she influenced by the state’s most eloquent voices? I did, however, find hints of what I would call a western memoir style in this book.
William Kittredge was our guru, and his command of storytelling, personal narrative, philosophy, and environmental ethics coalesced into pitch-perfect prose. Likewise, Lowry weaves some of the elements in her book, such as the self-reflection that Kittredge includes in his work. But, I don’t want to oversimplify.
I write this in respect to a question I had before I even opened the book, a book framed by black and white photos of four pretty girls surrounded by gruesome (blood) red. Why on earth would someone want to write about this crime? In the book, Lowry explains that she wrote this book because of her son who died in a hit-and-run accident. The case was never solved, and Lowry had to learn to live with the uncertainty; an un-knowingness that was practically un-livable for her. The parents of the girls who died in the yogurt shop also had to learn to live with uncertainty. Their crime is never solved.
An uncommonly grizzly murder. That’s how the newspapers described it. December 6, 1991. Austin, Texas. Four teenagers (two are sisters) get murdered at an I Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt franchise. The case goes on to be known as the “yogurt murders.” I think the fact that the crime took place at a yogurt store is especially baffling and strange. It also just seems absurd. But, the crime itself is horrific, unimaginable even.
Not only are the girls shot, but they are also gagged, forced to take their clothes and tennis shoes off, and eventually they are burned practically beyond recognition. The crime shakes the community to such an extent that the growing city is never the same. Overnight parents become fearful for their children, and teenagers succumb to the reality that sleepy, laid-back Austin isn’t the calm, hippie town it’s supposed to be. The book delves into this change of perspective, as well as looks at multiple issues surrounding the crime.
The first suspects include teenage boys from Mexico. Connected to drug gangs and with a history of crimes, these boys are seen as potentially violent perpetrators, and Lowry discusses the fact that race plays into our perceptions. However, the boys are never convicted.
Who the state does decide to convict is what makes up the bulk of the book. Four teenage boys get accused of killing the teenage girls—Robert Springsteen, Michael Scott, Forrest Welborn, and Maurice Pierce. The police were under enormous pressure to find the murderers, and, unfortunately, these boys were easy scapegoats.
Two of the boys gave false confessions. In 2017, we are used to the idea of a false confession, but in 1991 this seemed almost inconceivable. But why were these boys singled out? The truth is they were “bad boys,” wild teenagers who liked a good time. They admitted to taking drugs, to drinking, to having guns, living sloppy lives where they skipped school and began to spiral into the realm of not caring. All of them had challenging home lives.
Lowry writes character sketches of all four of the boys. She begins with Springsteen: “Known in West Virginia as “Robby,” the boy had dark, darting eyes, a notable widow’s peak, devilish eyebrows and a habit of crocking his chin to one side, as if to indicate his readiness to take on all comers. Quick-tempered and boastful, he seemed too swaggery for his own good….”
These character sketches are one of my favorite parts....Read More
On the last day of a wildly erratic year that saw Britons pushing themselves a little further away from the continent, where during much of the last century they engaged in some of the bloodiest conflicts in history, and, across the Atlantic the United States is plunging into perhaps an even more uncertain future
But, this book is about Istanbul, Turkey, a city that in many ways faces an even more uncertain future than either the U.S. or The United Kingdom. Recently, the historic city was blasted by the latest bludgeon of terrorism leveled on unsuspecting nightclub revelers. The Uzbek national arrested for the massacre had ties to ISIS.
Within hours of that terrorist attack, the Russians bombed Al Bab east of Aleppo, Syria, a joint operation with Turkey, ostensibly to rout out ISIS, but perhaps also to punish Turkey’s nemesis, the Kurds, who have been allied with the U.S. in the fight against Islamic terrorists….
Throughout its long history, Istanbul has been at the cusp of clashes between the East and West, and long before Turkey was a nation, the city-state of Byzantium, and then Constantinople, during Greek, then Roman times, loomed large as a power in the Roman Empire.
It figured with the birth of and rise of Christianity that it became the seat the Eastern Orthodox church; it was to become a center of Islamic power, and, finally, became the most populous city in Turkey, part of a quasi-secular nation bridging East and West, Islam and Christianity.
The geographical centrality of Istanbul in the clashes of civilizations over millennia inspired W.B. Yeats in “Sailing to Byzantium” to write of, “monuments of its own magnificence,” hearkening to “what is past, or passing, or to come.” Stretching back into antiquity it remains a place to be reckoned with even as the civilizations around it evolve and splinter through regime changes and eruptions that continue to reverberate around the world.
In The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon says that ancient Constantinople “appears to have been formed by Nature for the centre and capital of a great monarchy. Situated in the forty-first degree of latitude, the Imperial city commanded, from her seven hills, the opposite shores of Europe and Asia; the climate was healthy and temperate, the soil fertile, the harbour secure and capacious; and the approach on the side of the continent was of small extent and easy defence. The Bosporus and Hellespont may be considered as the two gates of Constantinople; and the prince who possessed those important passages could always shut them against a naval enemy and open them to the fleets of commerce.”
The city has been periodically reviled, sacked, coveted and worshipped, with successions of rulers building mighty walls to protect it from successions of attacks from land and sea.
The walled city-state that was later to become Istanbul was for centuries impenetrable to invaders, its narrow Bosporus Strait and the Dardanelles affording the only connections from the Mediterranean to the west and the Black Sea to the north and east between central Asia and Europe. The city was and remains the gateway between East and West.
Given these geographical attributes it is little wonder that when Rome itself crumbled under its own weight, Byzantium, as it was originally called, became in the third century AD the capital of the Roman Empire. As Thomas F. Madden says in his indispensable new book Istanbul: City of Majesty at the Crossroads of the World (Viking: 2016), while the “eternal Roman Empire was in utter disarray,” by the end of the century Byzantion (Madden prefers the pre-Latinate spelling) “had only begun to flourish.”
At the northern lip of Turkey and linked to the ancient Greek world by a strait now known as the Dardanelles (formerly Hellespont), Istanbul was at the very center of the known civilization of the West, and because of its strategic position, even in modern times it has been a key player in NATO (the alliance called into question by the new president of the United States), which long stationed American-made Patriot missile batteries on Turkish territory. The Turkish ambassador to the alliance, said “NATO is one of the essential dimensions of Turkish foreign and defense policy,” and it ranks second to the U.S. in size of standing armies within the NATO alliance.
Now the fragility of the alliance has been thrust into the news, while the Turks themselves seem to have tested its mettle in the strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the authoritarian Turkish leader and former mayor of Istanbul, who is being courted by NATO’s nemesis: Vladimir Putin. And, of course we now see that Putin has made a parlor game out of tinkering with carefully chosen and feckless leaders of Western democracies.
There has never been a time that Istanbul didn’t figure into civilization-shaking battles.
Founded as a Greek colony around 667 BC and coveted for its strategic geographical position, it offered lush pastureland, as well as abundant fishing—it was said that fish were so thick in the water that they could be grabbed by hand—and the protection of high sea walls. Though recent excavations have turned up rich new evidence for scholars, Madden says that there is scant information about early Byzantion until it figured prominently in the Persian Wars when in 512 BC the emperor Darius captured the city for Persia, only to revert to Greek domination when the Persians retreated in 478 BC.
The Greeks bound formerly independent clients including Byzantion into the protectionist Delian League. But, it wasn’t long before the Spartans overwhelmed Greece, forcing Athenian officials out of Byzantion and pulling it under its command.
When Athens ruled, there was a semblance of democracy, but the Spartans ran an oligarchic tyranny. Byzantion wouldn’t become independent again until 355 BC when the Athenians regained control. In the 330s BC, Philip and his son Alexander, waged a series of wars to pacify the wayward Greek city-states and subsequently formed what is called the League of Corinth for....Read More
I was nervous, to say the least, Father, as I rang the downstairs bell at Lucy’s old tenement. Most of the old buildings had been torn down, replaced by huge high-rises. Mother became very angry when they started building those big buildings.
“Big and ugly, Alex.”
This building had seen better days, but it was still standing in a choice spot overlooking the ocean. There were so many unanswered questions: did Lucy live here with her grandmother? Or, was she just one of those professional caregivers assigned to keep an eye on us Manhattan Syndrome types?
I guess you can tell by now, Father, I hated those bastards with a passion. They always seemed to show up when you don’t want to see them, which is never! First the witch doctors, then them! All part of the same industry set up to so-called help us, but really to give a lot of money and control over people’s lives to a bunch of highly selected people: our President for Life, Reverend Guess’s new effete elite.
But, what was I to expect? Maybe this was just one of those old-fashioned, multi-generational immigrant families with brothers, uncles, sisters, fathers and mothers? And, what could Lucy want from me, except Russian lessons?
Lucy buzzed me up, and soon I found myself being introduced to a round, jolly-looking, fat old lady.
“Grandmother, this is Alexander.”
The woman struggled mightily to get up from her chair.
“No. No,” I said, motioning for her to stay put. “Stay seated.”
She thankfully settled back down.
“Hello Alex,” she said. “It’s been a long time since we last spoke. Your mother and I were such good friends. Sit down, young man. Have a seat. Lucy, ask Alex if he wants something to drink. A little vodka, perhaps?”
As to be expected, the apartment was dimly lit. These days you could not buy a light bulb over 35 watts, and caregivers would poke around your apartment to make sure that there was only one lamp per room.
Anna Libid spoke rapidly, with only a touch of a Russian accent. It was hard to believe that this was the same person I met at the Pushkin Playhouse so many years ago, but she didn’t look or sound like someone who was looking for a place to go and die.
Her voice was buoyant, confident, playful even. I also noticed through the dim light that she was heavily made up, and her hair was all puffed up in a giant gray bouffant. She looked as if she had just walked out of the hairdresser’s.
To top off her great looking do, she had on a long, fancy blue dress, a gold speckled blue and gray shawl, and a long string of pearls. She looked outrageous, Father!
I couldn’t imagine anyone sitting around her dim apartment, dressed like that on a regular basis. This clearly must be a special evening for her.
Lucy laughed easily at her grandmother’s enthusiastic behavior.
“Grandmother, at least let Alexander take off his coat before you start ordering us about.”
Anna Libid rolled her large, gray eyes upward dramatically, in one of Mother’s grand theatrical gestures, and threw her hands in the air. These old actresses are all the same, Father!
“What’s an old lady to do, Alex? She’s always picking on me!”
For some reason, I was enjoying all this lighthearted banter. Just as Lucy had put me at ease the other day on the beach, her grandmother had done the same thing in a manner of minutes.
I handed Lucy my coat and gloves. When I tried to push my black watch cap into my coat pocket, I felt the old program. I had brought it along as a conversation starter, because I was unsure how I would handle myself or if I would have anything to say.
I pulled it out. “Look,” I said, handing it to her, and saying in Russian, “I brought you a little present.”
I watched as her gray eyes lit up with delight, both by my Russian and my little present. I had guessed....Read More
Two hundred and fifty years ago people didn’t go to restaurants. There was very little dining out, apart from taverns, lodging houses and stands selling street foods such as oysters. What was available was hardly luxurious. The main meal of the day, like on farms, was consumed around noon.
That’s why, with its fine French food, immense menu, efficient service and gracious atmosphere, America’s first real restaurant that opened in New York City in 1839 by the Delmonico brothers was such a revelation. Its eleven-page menu shows an astonishing mastery of French gastronomy: forty veal dishes ranging from sweetbreads to blanquette de veau, no fewer than eight preparations of partridge and four styles of venison, a ubiquity of French truffles, sorrel, endive, and more!
Paul Freedman has made a delightful contribution to our knowledge of how restaurants came to dominate American culture, from the elaborate French foods offered by Delmonico’s to fast foods and the faddish health-conscious cuisines of our times, in Ten Restaurants That Changed America.
Perhaps some would suggest that restaurants, such as MacDonald’s or Brown Derby, have had just as profound an effect on American culture as these. However, these are Mr. Freedman’s choices and he tells the story of each with an abundance of information.
An exploration of American cuisine, Ten Restaurants That Changed America is as much a history of American eating....Read More
One of the literary highlights of the recently concluded Age of Obama was the gradual and then sudden renaissance regarding the legacy of James Baldwin.
In recent years, Baldwin’s famously searing essay-collections (Notes of a Native Son and Nobody Knows My Name) have been alluded to, quoted from, rediscovered, and enshrined anew in all sorts of categories: Social History, Race Relations, African-American History, Gender Studies, World Literature, American Studies, and so on.
Two of James Baldwin’s book-length essays (The Fire Next Time and The Devil Finds Work) have also been excavated like the long-lost treasures they are, and amid all the arguments and debates about everything from the Black Lives Matter movement to the meaning of the Age of Obama, the mind of James Baldwin has been celebrated.
But, the missing link in this much-needed rediscovery of Baldwin’s varied works is his 1972 book-length essay No Name in the Street. That work, written and published in the aftermath of the 1960s, is a post-revolutionary lamentation. It is also a template for Cindy Brown Austin’s CINDERS: Stories of an Inner-City Survivor.
In addition to being a remarkable writer, Cindy Brown Austin shares another trait with the late, great Baldwin. She is steeped in what is known as “street ministry,” and her commitment to her perennial efforts to help others who are down and out (in manifold ways) is a living, breathing form of faith – not a once-weekly exercise.
Hartford, Connecticut, is the red-hot center of this memoir. It’s where Cindy Brown Austin has lived and worked for decades. And, it’s where she’s witnessed a type of chronic indifference to the deprivations of the black community that most of white, wealthier Connecticut can afford to look away from. The infamous 2012 Newton massacre of 20 elementary schoolchildren (mostly Caucasian) earned the attention of the world press and especially American media, for weeks on end. Months, even.
But as CINDERS makes clear, from beginning to end, such unspeakable violence and mayhem have been occurring incrementally in Hartford to mostly African-American children for a long, long time. Yet, little attention has been paid to their tragic fates.
The power and precision of Cindy Brown Austin’s prose merits lengthy quotation. Here’s how she draws in readers to her grim, troubling subject matter:
“You had to be there, in the thick of it, to really understand what happened to us poor urban kids, growing up in an affluent place like Connecticut. The third wealthiest state in the country after Maryland, New Jersey, and Hawaii, there were forty-six other states with fewer resources, less income than Connecticut. But growing up, I always imagined they’d be far more humane in the way they took care of their children and in the dignity they accorded their poor. I definitely couldn’t imagine any place being worse.
“For myself and many of my comrades who came of age in my era, growing up black in Connecticut was like being a stranger in your own land, a guest who had overstayed his welcome in someone else’s home. And although they didn’t necessarily say it, you could feel the restless hostility, the sullen impatience of the host family, anxiously waiting for you to pack up and leave. But where was home if not in the place you were born and raised—and where were we expected to go?
“These are our stories, Connecticut Stories from the Underground. They were written not to accuse or blame anyone. They were written because forgetting about what happened to us would be like forgetting the Nazi war camps and other atrocities of history. Telling our stories is the only way I know to explain what racism and poverty can do to children, to people.”
The very first anecdote that CINDERS presents comes straight from the author’s own Sunday-afternoon experience. We read of a Sunday back in 2014, when after church services and a light lunch, it comes to the attention of Cindy Brown Austin that the young children playing upstairs are, in fact, not at play with toys or dolls or Legos. Instead, some 3-year-olds are using a....Read More
I speak a separate language
from the world’s,
and every time I confess
my lust she laughs
like I’m a newborn
who makes demands in “coos”.
That night I had nobody to love,
so I made shitty coffee
because it’s loud to grind beans,
and in sleep my heart beats slowly.
The tiny strands of hair you tuck
behind your ears
make my teeth tighten,....Read More
If there is one classical myth serving as a leitmotif in this riveting, startling, and heartrending memoir by acclaimed biographer and former stage-and-screen actress Patricia Bosworth, it is the heralded Phoenix myth. Again, and again, in her private life and her professional endeavors, Bosworth had to rise from the ashes and begin anew. Her victories were won against all odds.
She grew up as the daughter of a high profile attorney whose liberal, left-leaning tendencies were rewarded during FDR’s epoch and the postwar Truman years. But her father’s long, slow slide into alcoholism and depression coincided with the ways in which his career came undone as the McCarthy Era cast its shadows across America in the early 1950s.
After vigorously defending the Hollywood Ten in the late 1940s, when the postwar Red Scare accelerated, Bosworth’s father was in hot water with J. Edgar Hoover, whose FBI agents trailed him relentlessly. After Senator Joseph McCarthy’s 1950 rise to fame, when his lists of alleged spies in the State Department and Communist allies in each nook and cranny of American life upended innumerable professional lives, it wasn’t long before young Patricia Bosworth witnessed her father’s deterioration.
Liquor and pills were omnipresent. And, in that era, Bosworth’s mother and her father were represented “successful” adults whose dependence on alcohol and sleeping pills (and other uppers and downers) was never questioned. Denial about everything was the status quo. When firm after firm let go of her father as a partner, neither Bosworth nor her beloved brother were told about anything untoward.
Everything’s fine, they were reminded. But, nothing was.
Bosworth recalls: “Around three a.m. my brother and I were both awakened by a thud. It seemed to have come from the kitchen. We rushed into the upstairs hall and clutched at each other. Yanking on our robes, we tiptoed down the two flights of stairs to the first-floor landing. We were just in time to see our father lying inertly on a stretcher and being carried by two attendants out the front door to a waiting ambulance. We couldn’t tell whether he was dead or alive. Mama followed, wrapped in her mink coat and smearing lipstick across her mouth. She climbed into the ambulance after him, and it sped off into the night, sirens wailing. Daddy had taken an overdose of pills. It was another month before daddy pulled himself together. He returned home pale and shaky, insisting he’d kicked the pills.”
That crisis was followed by a short-term recovery, when yet another law firm made room for Bosworth’s father, and he rallied long enough to rope in newly minted film star Montgomery Clift as a client. Bosworth befriended Monty Clift before he was 20.
More than three decades later, an older and wiser Patricia Bosworth took seriously the advice of her prestigious acting teacher (legendary Actors Studio innovator Lee Strasberg) and shifted her career from acting to writing. And, she authored the first full-length biography of Montgomery Clift, which remains in print to this day.
However, the chronological bookends of this captivating memoir are, by and large, the years spanning 1950 through 1966. With flashbacks and fast-forwards included.
The bulk of her memoir chronicles the 1950s. Bosworth eloped when exceedingly young and struggled against the miserable constrictions of her eccentric young husband’s idea of marriage. Unfortunately, society at large clung to equally harsh ideas about a woman’s role in life. Soon enough, that first marriage capsized. Nonetheless, nothing was worse than her treasured brother’s suicide.
Tormented by his sexual orientation, Bosworth’s gay brother found no peace. At age 18, he took his own life. Then, only six years later, her father also killed himself.
Meantime, her mother’s once promising writing career stalled and fizzled out.
In her quest to transcend all the above, and steeped in a culture that made smoking, drinking, pill-popping, misogyny, and domestic abuse all supposedly “normal,” the young adulthood of Patricia Bosworth was literally acted out within the milieu of the New York theatre scene of the 1950s. Eventually, for a brief period, Bosworth managed to balance a vibrant combination of high-profile appearances in works ranging from an esteemed stage version of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie to a co-starring film role (opposite Audrey Hepburn) in The Nun’s Story. Bosworth was everywhere.
And yet, no matter what, she was anything but fulfilled. Her memoir recounts how desperately the spirit of the age was infused with the exhaustion of ambition, the contradictions and hypocrisies of....Read More
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