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The Reverend Gary Davis was born in Piedmont, South Carolina, on April 30, 1896. He died in Hammonton, New Jersey, on May 5, 1972. In between, he become one of the most protean guitar players of the twentieth century, and his finger-picking style influenced everyone from Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead to Keb’ Mo’ and Blind Boy Fuller.
Born partially blind as the sole surviving son to two sharecroppers in the Jim Crow South, by the 1940s, Davis, ordained as a Baptist minister, was playing on Harlem streetcorners and storefronts, making his living as an itinerant, singing gospel preacher. By the beginning of the 1960s folk revival, he had moved in circles that included Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie, recorded a series of albums for the legendary Folkways label, and been embraced by a generation of educated, middle-class young people eager for fodder to spur a folk revival. See his performance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival for further illumination of this cultural congruence. Even before his death in 1970, he was the subject of two television documentaries. Davis’s legacy, however, still exists outside a canon that has acknowledged his peers, including Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson—his music, like his troubled life, is the stuff of myth, and as such, has charted a more intimate course through a series of covers and the musical offerings of his students, a group numbering in the dozens.
In concert with the publication of Say No to the Devil: The Life and Music of the Reverend Gary Davis, the first biography of Davis, written by Ian Zack, one of his former students, we’re putting together a special feature, with performances, of every student who studied with the Reverend. In the meantime, here’s a teaser list of some names, just to give you a sense of the breadth of those who sought Davis out, and in whose own compositions, the master player’s gospel still lingers.
Roy Book Binder
Allen Evans (one of Davis’s final guitar pupils; a week or two before his death, Davis gave him a two-and-a-half hour lesson, then wanted to arm wrestle)
Blind Boy Fuller
Jesse Lee Kincaid
Dean Meredith (drove Davis to visit Woody Guthrie at Brooklyn State Hospital in 1964)
Dave Van Ronk
As a bonus, here’s Bob Dylan playing Davis’s arrangement of the song “Candy Man,” from a 1961 Minneapolis hotel tape (it’s really good):
Today is the annual Nonfiction Picture Book 10 for 10, hosted by Cathy Mere from Reflect and Refine, Mandy Robek of Enjoy and Embrace Learning, and Julie Balen of Write at the Edge.… Continue reading →
As the city buzzes around us in preparation for the 2015 NBA All-Star Weekend, hosted jointly by the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets, we caught up with a few of our office’s basketball fans to reflect on their all-time favorite NBA All-Stars — and their entries in the Oxford African American Studies Center. Without further ado, Oxford University Press New York’s ‘5 Guys and a Girl’ weigh in:
* * * * *
Everett Jones: NY Office Services
Top Pick: Julius Erving Second Pick: Bernard King
“Dr. J made it popular to dunk and have an above the rim game.”
Known to fans and announcers as Dr. J, Julius Erving set new standards of performance in his sport and made the slam-dunk into one of the most exciting moves in professional basketball.
* * * * *
Kishiem Laws: NY Office Services
Top Pick: Kobe Bryant Second Pick: Kevin Durant
“Kobe has 18 straight All-Star appearances.”
At age seventeen, Kobe Bryant became the youngest guard to be drafted in the history of the National Basketball Association. Bryant blossomed into an NBA superstar within his first three years and went on to lead the Lakers to three consecutive championships from 2000 to 2002.
* * * * *
Michael Franks: NY Office Services
Top Pick: Michael Jordan Second Pick: Dominique Wilkins
“The 1987 Slam Dunk Contest says it all!”
In 1987, Michael Jordan ran from beyond half-court, leaped from the free-throw line, and glided through the air in a seemingly effortless manner—lifting the ball and then lowering it, contracting his legs and then spreading and extending them—finally dunking the ball fifteen feet later cinching the Dunk Contest Title over Dominique Wilkins.
* * * * *
Godwin Joseph: NY Office Services
Pick: Shaquille O’Neal Second Pick: Dwayne Wade
“With 15 All-Star Team selections, how could I not pick Shaq?”
A 15-time NBA All-Star, Shaquille O’Neil quickly became one of the NBA’s top centers, and only one of three players in the history of the NBA to win the NBA MVP, All-Star game MVP and Finals MVP awards in the same year.
* * * * *
Fred Hampton: OUP US IT
Top Pick: Wilt Chamberlain Second Pick: Kareem Adbul-Jabar
“He is the ORIGINAL.”
A legendary basketball player, Wilt Chamberlain was a gifted offensive shooter who scored and rebounded prolifically. In 1978 Chamberlain was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, and in 1996 for the NBA’s fiftieth anniversary he was named one of the fifty greatest players in NBA history.
* * * * *
Ayana Young: Online Marketing
Top Pick: Magic Johnson Second Pick: Jerry West
“There’s a reason they called him Magic.”
Considered one of the greatest point guards and play-makers in the history of the NBA, Magic Johnson ended his 13-year professional career in 1991, but returned to play in the 1992 All-Star Game becoming the first and only retired player to do so and win the All-Star MVP Award.
* * * * *
Image credits: (1) Knicks v Thunder 2010 MSG. Photo by Matt Pirecki. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Julius Erving, 6 November 1974, Sport Magazine Archives. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. (3) Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers drives to the basket against the Washington Wizards in Washington, D.C., USA on February 3, 2007. Photo by Keith Allison. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. (4) Michael Jordan, Chicago Bulls, 1997. Photo by Steve Lipofsky at Basketballphoto.com. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. (5) Shaquille O’Neal preparing to shoot a free throw in 2009. Photo by Keith Allison. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons. (6) Wilt Chamberlain, 1967. Philadelphia 76ers press photo. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. (7) Los Angeles Lakers Magic Johnson and Boston Celtics Larry Bird in Game two of the 1985 NBA Finals at Boston Garden. Photo by Steve Lipofsky at Basketballphoto.com. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Invincible Louisa: The Story of the Author of Little Women. Cornelia Meigs. 1933/1995. Little, Brown. 256 pages. [Source: Library]
My mom has wanted me to read Invincible Louisa for years. I finally did, and I enjoyed it. Did I love it? Probably not LOVE. But I certainly appreciated it and found it pleasant enough.
Invincible Louisa is a biography of Louisa May Alcott written for children. It reads much like a novel. There is plenty of dialogue; there is plenty of emotion and description. It covers her whole life--from birth to death. Though not equal attention is given to every year, of course!!! Much of the focus is on the whole Alcott family.
Probably half the book focuses on Louisa Alcott "becoming" a writer: how she came to write stories, sketches, poems, novels, etc., how she came to be published, how her works were received by critics and the public. But the book focuses much on her character. (It's not a word you hear a lot about now perhaps. But her values, beliefs, and principles.) So, yes, the book is about her being a writer, but, it is just as much about her being a daughter and sister.
Would I have appreciated Little Women more if I'd read Invincible Louisa as a child? Perhaps. The two books would definitely complement one another.
Little Author in the Big Woods. Yona Zeldis McDonough. 2014. Henry Holt. 176 pages. [Source: Library]
I expected to love this biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder. It did not disappoint even slightly. It is written for an audience ready to appreciate the Little House novels. That was a nice touch, I thought. For children who already love the original Little House books, this book is great for telling more of the whole story. Readers can see for themselves the similarities and differences between the books and her real life. There were details she left out or changed. There were periods of her life she didn't write about. Readers also get a fuller story for her whole life birth through death. Some details, of course, I'd read before, but, there were a handful of things that I'd not read before, or, that I don't remember reading before!
It is a quick read. It is an interesting read too! I love the subject, of course, I must have read the books dozens of times growing up. (Long Winter and These Happy Golden Years are my favorites in the series.) I also love the cute title of this one!!!
It is easy to recommend this one! It just says, read me! read me!
If you aren't familiar with this delightful biography of Sun Ra by Chris Raschka, you should be. Learn about the ways that this book is a perfect mentor text, and hear about the writing process from the author.
The newish picture book biography series, "Ordinary People Change the World" by Brad Meltzer's a perfect nonfiction series for elementary students. We have the first few books in our classroom and I've noticed that several kids are picking them up on their own to read during independent reading time. They are great stories and are very accessible to young children.
These books look simpler than they are. I read the newest title, I Am Jackie Robinson this weekend and realized how packed the book is. The focus of the story and the theme of all of the books is one about heroes. So the story focuses on the things Jackie Robinson did to change the world. The stories is an engaging one for kids and the illustrations make them books that kids will pick up even without our nudging.
From a nonfiction reading standpoint, I plan to use these books to teach lots of mini lessons. The page layouts, the ways the talking bubbles share details that go beyond the main text, the timeline at the end of the book, and other features all make these books a new favorite nonfiction series for me.
I love this new edition and am looking forward to the next book in the series--I Am Lucille Ball coming in July.
This short clip tells a bit more about the series:
As anyone knows who has looked at the newspapers over the festive season, 2015 is a bumper year for anniversaries: among them Magna Carta (800 years), Agincourt (600 years), and Waterloo (200 years). But it is January which sees the first of 2015’s major commemorations, for it is fifty years since Sir Winston Churchill died (on the 24th) and received a magnificent state funeral (on the 30th). As Churchill himself had earlier predicted, he died on just the same day as his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, had done, in 1895, exactly seventy years before.
The arrangements for Churchill’s funeral, codenamed ‘Operation Hope Not’, had long been in the planning, which meant that Churchill would receive the grandest obsequies afforded to any commoner since the funerals of Nelson and Wellington. And unlike Magna Carta or Agincourt or Waterloo, there are many of us still alive who can vividly remember those sad yet stirring events of half a century ago. My generation (I was born in 1950) grew up in what were, among other things, the sunset years of Churchillian apotheosis. They may, as Lord Moran’s diary makes searingly plain, have been sad and enfeebled years for Churchill himself, but they were also years of unprecedented acclaim and veneration. During the last decade of his life, he was the most famous man alive. On his ninetieth birthday, thousands of greeting cards were sent, addressed to ‘The Greatest Man in the World, London’, and they were all delivered to Churchill’s home. During his last days, when he lay dying, there were many who found it impossible to contemplate the world without him, just as Queen Victoria had earlier wondered, at the time of his death in 1852, how Britain would manage without the Duke of Wellington.
Like all such great ceremonial occasions, the funeral itself had many meanings, and for those of us who watched it on television, by turns enthralled and tearful, it has also left many memories. In one guise, it was the final act homage to the man who had been described as ‘the saviour of his country’, and who had lived a life so full of years and achievement and honour and controversy that it was impossible to believe anyone in Britain would see his like again. But it was also, and in a rather different emotional and historical register, not only the last rites of the great man himself, but also a requiem for Britain as a great power. While Churchill might have saved his country during the Second World War, he could not preserve its global greatness thereafter. It was this sorrowful realization that had darkened his final years, just as his funeral, attended by so many world leaders and heads of state, was the last time that a British figure could command such global attention and recognition. (The turn out for Margaret Thatcher’s funeral, in 2013, was nothing like as illustrious.) These multiple meanings made the ceremonial the more moving, just as there were many episodes which made it unforgettable: the bearer party struggling and straining to carry the huge, lead-lined coffin up the steps of St Paul’s; Clement Attlee—Churchill’s former political adversary—old and frail, but determined to be there as one of the pallbearers, sitting on a chair outside the west door brought especially for him; the cranes of the London docks dipping in salute, as Churchill’s coffin was born up the Thames from Tower Pier to Waterloo Station; and the funeral train, hauled by a steam engine of the Battle of Britain class, named Winston Churchill, steaming out of the station.
For many of us, the funeral was made the more memorable by Richard Dimbleby’s commentary. Already stricken with cancer, he must have known that this would be the last he would deliver for a great state occasion (he would, indeed, be dead before the year was out), and this awareness of his own impending mortality gave to his commentary a tone of tender resignation that he had never quite achieved before. As his son, Jonathan, would later observe in his biography of his father, ‘Richard Dimbleby’s public was Churchill’s public, and he had spoken their emotions.’
Fifty years on, the intensity of those emotions cannot be recovered, but many events have been planned to commemorate Churchill’s passing, and to ponder the nature of his legacy. Two years ago, a committee was put together, consisting of representatives of the many institutions and individuals that constitute the greater Churchill world, both in Britain and around the world, which it has been my privilege to chair. Significant events are planned for 30 January: in Parliament, where a wreath will be laid; on the River Thames, where Havengore, the ship that bore Churchill’s coffin, will retrace its journey; and at Westminster Abbey, where there will be a special evensong. It will be a moving and resonant day, and the prelude to many other events around the country and around the world. Will any other British prime minister be so vividly and gratefully remembered fifty years after his—or her—death?
Headline image credit: Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, New Bond Street, London. Sculpted by Lawrence Holofcener. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Mayakovsky returned to Moscow on 17 or 18 September. The following day, Krasnoshchokov was arrested, accused of a number of different offenses. He was supposed to have lent money to his brother Yakov, head of the firm American–Russian Constructor, at too low a rate of interest, and to have arranged drink– and sex–fueled orgies at the Hotel Europe in Petrograd, paying the Gypsy girls who entertained the company with pure gold. He was also accused of having passed on his salary from the Russian–American Industrial Corporation ($200 a month) to his wife (who had returned to the United States), of having bought his mistress flowers and furs out of state funds, of renting a luxury villa, and of keeping no fewer than three horses. Lenin was now so ill that he had not been able to intervene on Krasnoshchokov’s behalf even if he had wanted to.
His arrest was a sensation of the first order. It was the first time that such a highly placed Communist had been accused of corruption, and the event cast a shadow over the whole party apparatus. Immediately after Krasnoshchokov’s arrest, and in order to prevent undesired interpretations of what had happened, Valerian Kuybyshev, the commissar for Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection, let it be known that “incontrovertible facts have come to light which show Krasnoshchokov has in a criminal manner exploited the resources of the economics department [of the Industry Bank] for his own use, that he has arranged wild orgies with these funds, and that he has used bank funds to enrich his relatives, etc.” He had, it was claimed, “in a criminal manner betrayed the trust placed in him and must be sentenced to a severe punishment.”
Krasnoshchokov was, in other words, judged in advance. There was no question of any objective legal process; the intention was to set an example: “The Soviet power and the Communist Party will […] root out with an iron hand all sick manifestations of the NEP and remind those who ‘let themselves be tempted’ by the joys of capitalism that they live in a workers’ state run by a Communist party.” Krasnoshchokov’s arrest was deemed so important that Kuybyshev’s statement was printed simultaneously in the party organ Pravda and the government organ Izvestiya. Kuybyshev was a close friend of the prosecutor Nikolay Krylenko, who had led the prosecution of the Socialist Revolutionaries the previous year, and who in time would turn show trials and false charges into an art form.
When Krasnoshchokov was arrested, Lili and Osip were still in Berlin. In the letter that Mayakovsky wrote to them a few days after the arrest, the sensational news is passed over in total silence. He gives them the name of the civil servant in the Berlin legation who can give them permission to import household effects (which they had obviously bought in Berlin) into Russia; he tells them that the squirrel which lives with them is still alive and that Lyova Grinkrug is in the Crimea. The only news item of greater significance is that he has been at Lunacharsky’s to discuss Lef and is going to visit Trotsky on the same mission. But of the event which the whole of Moscow was talking about, and which affected Lili to the utmost degree—not a word.
Krasnoshchokov’s trial took place at the beginning of March 1924. Sitting in the dock, apart from his brother Yakov, were three employees of the Industry Bank. Krasnoshchokov, who was a lawyer, delivered a brilliant speech in his own defense, explaining that, as head of the bank, he had the right to fix lending rates in individual cases and that one must be flexible in order to obtain the desired result. As for the charges of immoral behavior he maintained that his work necessitated a certain degree of official entertainment and that the “luxury villa” in the suburb of Kuntsevo was an abandoned dacha which in addition was his sole permanent dwelling. (It is one of the ironies of history that the house had been owned before the Revolution by the Shekhtel family and accordingly had often had Mayakovsky as a guest—see the chapter “Volodya”). Finally, he pointed out that his private life was not within the jurisdiction of the law.
This opinion was not shared by the court, which ruled that Krasnoshchokov had lived an immoral life during a time when a Communist ought to have set a good example and not surrender to the temptations offered by the New Economic Policy. Krasnoshchokov was also guilty of having used his position to “encourage his relatives’ private business transactions” and having caused the bank to lose 10,000 gold rubles. He was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment and in addition three years’ deprivation of citizen’s rights. Moreover, he was excluded from the Communist Party. His brother was given three years’ imprisonment, while the other three coworkers received shorter sentences.
Krasnoshchokov had in fact been a very successful bank director. Between January 1923 and his arrest in September he had managed to increase the Industry Bank’s capital tenfold, partly thanks to a flexible interest policy which led to large American investments in Russia. There is a good deal of evidence that the charges against him were initiated by persons within the Finance Commissariat and the Industry Bank’s competitor, the Soviet National Bank. Shortly before his arrest Krasnoshchokov had suggested that the Industry Bank should take over all the National Bank’s industrial–financial operations. Exactly the opposite happened: after Krasnoshchokov’s verdict was announced, the Industry Bank was subordinated to the Soviet National Bank.
There is little to suggest that the accusations of orgies were true. Krasnoshchokov was not known to be a rake, and his “entertainment expenses” were hardly greater than those of other highly placed functionaries. But he had difficulties defending himself, as he maintained not one mistress but two—although he had a wife and children. The woman who figured in the trial was not, as one might have expected, Lili, but a certain Donna Gruz—Krasnoshchokov’s secretary, who six years later would become his second wife. This fact undoubtedly undermined his credibility as far as his private life was concerned.
When Lili and Elsa showed Nadezhda Lamanova’s dresses in Paris in the winter of 1924, it attracted the attention of both the French and the British press, where this photograph was published with the caption “soviet sack fashion.—Because of the lack of textiles in Soviet Russia, Mme. Lamanoff, a Moscow fashion designer, had this dress made out of sackcloth from freight bales.”
By the time the judgment was announced, Lili had been in Paris for three weeks. She was there for her own amusement and does not seem to have had any particular tasks to fulfill. But she had with her dresses by the Soviet couturier Nadezhda Lamanova which she and Elsa showed off at two soirees organized by a Paris newspaper. She would like to go to Nice, she confided in a letter home to Moscow on 23 February, but her plans were frustrated by the fact that Russian emigrants were holding a congress there. She was thinking of traveling to Spain instead, or somewhere else in France, to “bake in the sun for a week or so.” But she remained in Paris, where she and Elsa went out dancing the whole time. Their “more or less regular cavaliers” were Fernand Léger (whom Mayakovsky had got to know in Paris in 1922) and an acquaintance from London who took them everywhere with him, “from the most chic of places to the worst of dives.” “It has been nothing but partying here,” she wrote. “Elsa has instituted a notebook in which she writes down all our rendezvous ten days in advance!” As clothes are expensive in Paris too, she asks Osip and Mayakovsky to send her a little money in the event of their managing to win “some mad sum of money” at cards.
When she was writing this letter, there were still two weeks to go before Krasnoshchokov’s trial. “How is A[lexander] M[ikhailovich]?” she asked, in the middle of reporting on the fun she was having. But she did not receive a reply, or if she did, it has not been preserved. On 26 March, after a month in Paris, she took the boat to England to visit her mother, who was in poor health, but that same evening she was forced to return to Calais after being stopped at passport control in Dover—despite having a British visa issued in Moscow in June 1923. What she did not know was that after her first visit to England in October 1922 she had been declared persona non grata, something which all British passport control points “for Europe and New York” had been informed of in a secret circular of 13 February 1923.
“You can’t imagine how humiliating it was to be turned back at the British border,” she wrote to Mayakovsky: “I have all sorts of theories about it, which I’ll tell you about when we I see you. Strange as it may seem, I think they didn’t let me in because of you.” She guessed right: documents from the Home Office show that it was her relationship with Mayakovsky, who wrote “extremely libellous articles” in Izvestiya, which had proved her undoing. Strangely enough, despite being refused entry to Britain, she was able to travel to London three weeks later. The British passport authorities have no record of her entry to the country. Did she come in by an illegal route?
At the same time that Lili traveled to Paris, Mayakovsky set out on a recital tour in Ukraine. Recitals were an important source of income for him. During his stay in Odessa he mentioned in a newspaper interview that he was planning to set out soon on a trip round the world, as he had been invited to give lectures and read poems in the United States. Two weeks later he was back in Moscow, and in the middle of April he went to Berlin, where Lili joined him about a week later. According to one newspaper, Mayakovsky was in the German capital “on his way to America.”
The round–the–world trip did not come off, as Mayakovsky failed to obtain the necessary visas. It was not possible to request an American visa in Moscow, as the two countries lacked diplomatic ties. Mayakovsky’s plan was therefore to try to get into the United States via a third country. Britain’s first Labour government, under Ramsay MacDonald, had scarcely recognized the Soviet Union (on 1 February 1924) before Mayakovsky requested a British visa, on 25 March. From England he planned to continue his journey to Canada and India. In a letter to Ramsay MacDonald, Britain’s chargé d’affaires in Moscow asked for advice about the visa application. Mayakovsky was not known to the mission, he wrote, but was “a member of the Communist party and, I am told, is known as a Bolshevik propagandist.” Mr. Hodgson would not have needed to do this if he had known that on 9 February, the Home Office had also issued a secret circular about Mayakovsky, “one of the principal leaders of the ‘Communist’ propaganda and agitation section of the ‘ROSTA,’” who since 1921 had been writing propaganda articles for Izvestiya and “should not be given a visa or be allowed to land in the United Kingdom” or any of its colonies. In Mayakovsky’s case the circular was sent to every British port, consulate, and passport and military checkpoint, as well as to Scotland House and the India Office. But in the very place where people really ought to have known about it, His Majesty’s diplomatic mission in Moscow, they were completely unaware of it.
While he waited for an answer from the British, Mayakovsky made a couple of appearances in Berlin where he talked about Lef and recited his poems. On the 9 May he traveled back to Moscow in company with Lili and Scotty, the Scotch terrier she had picked up in England, tired of waiting for notification that never came. When he got to Moscow he found out that on 5 May London had instructed the British mission in Moscow to turn down his visa application.
The preliminary investigation and subsequent trial of Krasnoshchokov caused a great stir, but it would certainly have got even more column inches if it had not been played out in the shadow of a significantly more important event. On 21 January 1924, Vladimir Lenin died after several years of illness.
Among the thousands of people jostling one another in the queues which snaked around in front of Trade Unions House, where the leader of the Revolution lay in state, were Mayakovsky, Lili, and Osip. Lenin’s death affected Mayakovsky deeply. “It was a terrible morning when he died,” Lili recalled. “We wept in the queue in Red Square where we were standing in the freezing cold to see him. Mayakovsky had a press card, so we were able to bypass the queue. I think he viewed the body ten times. We were all deeply shaken.”
Mayakovsky with Scotty, whom Lili bought in England. The picture was taken in the summer of 1924 at the dacha in Pushkino. Scotty loved ice cream, and, according to Rodchenko, Mayakovsky regarded “with great tenderness how Scotty ate and licked his mouth.” “He took him in his arms and I photographed them in the garden,” the photographer remembered. “I took two pictures. Volodya kept his tender smile, wholly directed at Scotty.” The photograph with Scotty is in fact one of the few where Mayakovsky can be seen smiling.
The feelings awakened by Lenin’s death were deep and genuine, and not only for his political supporters. Among those queuing were Boris Pasternak and Osip Mandelstam, who shared a far more lukewarm attitude to the Revolution and its leader. “Lenin dead in Moscow!” exclaimed Mandelstam in his coverage of the event. “How can one fail to be with Moscow in this hour! Who does not want to see that dear face, the face of Russia itself ? The time? Two, three, four? How long will we stand here? No one knows. The time is past. We stand in a wonderful nocturnal forest of people. And thousands of children with us.”
Shortly after Lenin’s death Mayakovsky tackled his most ambitious project to date: a long poem about the Communist leader. He had written about him before, in connection with his fiftieth birthday in 1920 (“Vladimir Ilyich!”), and when Lenin suffered his first stroke in the winter of 1923 (“We Don’t Believe It!”), but those were shorter poems. According to Mayakovsky himself, he began pondering a poem about Lenin as early as 1923, but that may well have been a rationalization after the event. What set his pen in motion was in any case Lenin’s death in January 1924.
Mayakovsky had only a superficial knowledge of Lenin’s life and work and was forced to read up on him before he could write about him. His mentor, as on so many other occasions, was Osip, who supplied him with books and gave him a crash course in Leniniana. Mayakovsky himself had neither the time nor the patience for such projects. The poem was written during the summer and was ready by the beginning of October 1924. It was given the title “Vladimir Ilyich Lenin” and was the longest poem Mayakovsky ever wrote; at three thousand lines, it was almost twice as long as “About This.” In the autumn of 1924 he gave several poetry readings and fragments of the poem were printed in various newspapers. It came out in book form in February 1925.
The line to the Trade Unions’ House in Moscow, where Lenin was lying in state.
So the lyrical “About This” was followed by an epic poem, in accordance with the conscious or unconscious scheme that directed the rhythm of Mayakovsky’s writing. If even a propaganda poem like “To the Workers in Kursk” was dedicated to Lili, such a dedication was impossible in this case. “Vladimir Ilyich Lenin” was dedicated to the Russian Communist Party, and Mayakovsky explains why, with a subtle but unambiguous reference to “About This”:
I can write
is not the time
as a poet
give to you,
In “Vladimir Ilyich Lenin” Lenin is portrayed as a Messiah–like figure, whose appearance on the historical scene is an inevitable consequence of the emergence of the working class. Karl Marx revealed the laws of history and, with his theories, “helped the working class to its feet.” But Marx was only a theoretician, who in the fullness of time would be replaced by someone who could turn theory into practice, that is, Lenin.
The poem is uneven, which is not surprising considering the format. From a linguistic point of view—the rhyme, the neologisms—it is undoubtedly comparable to the best of Mayakovsky’s other works, and the depiction of the sorrow and loss after Lenin’s death is no less than a magnificent requiem. But the epic, historical sections are too long and prolix. The same is true of the tributes to the Communist Party, which often rattle with empty rhetoric (which in turn can possibly be explained by the fact that Mayakovsky was never a member of the party):
once more to make the majestic word
Who needs that?!
The voice of an individual
is thinner than a cheep.
Who hears it—
except perhaps his wife?
is a hand with millions of fingers
into a single destroying fist.
The individual is rubbish,
the individual is zero …
We say Lenin,
but mean Lenin.
One of the few reviewers who paid any attention to the poem, the proletarian critic and anti–Futurist G. Lelevich, was quite right in pointing out that Mayakovsky’s “ultraindividualistic” lines in “About This” stand out as “uniquely honest” in comparison with “Vladimir Ilyich Lenin,” which “with few exceptions is rationalistic and rhetorical.” This was a “tragic fact” that Mayakovsky could only do something about by trying to “conquer himself.” The Lenin poem, wrote Lelevich, was a “flawed but meaningful and fruitful attempt to tread this path.”
Lelevich was right to claim that “About This” is a much more convincing poem than the ode to Lenin. But the “tragic” thing was not what Lelevich perceived as such, but something quite different, namely, Mayakovsky’s denial of the individual and his importance. In order to “conquer” himself, that is, the lyrical impulse within himself, he would have to take yet more steps in that direction—which he would in fact do, although it went against his innermost being.
If there is anything of lasting value in “Vladimir Ilyich Lenin,” it is not the paeans of praise to Lenin and the Communist Party—poems of homage are seldom good—but the warnings that Lenin, after his death, will be turned into an icon. The Lenin to whom Mayakovsky pays tribute was born in the Russian provinces as “a normal, simple boy” and grew up to be the “most human of all human beings.” If he had been “king–like and god–like” Mayakovsky would without a doubt have protested and taken a stance “opposed to all processions and tributes”:
to have found words
for lightning–flashing curses,
and my yell
were trampled underfoot
I should have
like bombs at the Kremlin
The worst thing Mayakovsky can imagine is that Lenin, like Marx, will become a “cooling plaster dotard imprisoned in marble.” This is a reference back to “The Fourth International,” in which Lenin is depicted as a petrified monument.
I am worried that
set in stone,
in syrup–smooth balsam—
Mayakovsky warns, clearly blind to the fact that he himself is contributing to this development with his seventy–five–page long poem.
The fear that Lenin would be canonized after his death was deeply felt—and well grounded. It did not take long before Gosizdat (!) began advertising busts of the leader in plaster, bronze, granite, and marble, “life–size and double life–size.” The busts were produced from an original by the sculptor Merkurov—whom Mayakovsky had apostrophized in his Kursk poem—and with the permission of the Committee for the Perpetuation of the Memory of V. I. Lenin. The target groups were civil–service departments, party organizations and trade unions, cooperatives, and the like.
After his return from Berlin in May 1924, Mayakovsky met with the Japanese author Tamisi Naito, who was visiting Moscow. Seated at the table next to Mayakovsky and Lili is Sergey Tretyakov’s wife, Olga. To left of Naito (standing in the center) are Sergey Eisenstein and Boris Pasternak.
The Lef members’ tribute to the dead leader was of a different nature. The theory section in the first issue of Lef for 1924 was devoted to Lenin’s language, with contributions by leading Formalists such as Viktor Shklovsky, Boris Eikhenbaum, Boris Tomashevsky, and Yury Tynyanov—groundbreaking attempts to analyze political language by means of structuralist methods. Lenin was said to have “decanonized” the language, “cut down the inflated style,” and so on, all in the name of linguistic efficiency. This striving for powerful simplicity was in line with the theoretical ambitions of the Lef writers but stood in stark contrast to the canonization of Lenin which was set in train by his successors as soon as his corpse was cold.
This entire issue of Lef was in actual fact a polemic against this development—indirectly, in the essays about Lenin’s language, and in a more undisguised way in the leader article. In a direct reference to the advertisements for Lenin busts, the editorial team at Lef in their manifesto “Don’t Trade in Lenin!” sent the following exhortation to the authorities:
Don’t make matrices out of Lenin.
Don’t print his portrait on posters, oilcloths, plates, drinking
vessels, cigarette boxes.
Don’t turn Lenin into bronze.
Don’t take from him his living gait and human physiognomy,
which he managed to preserve at the same time as he led history.
Lenin is still our present.
He is among the living.
We need him living, not dead.
Learn from Lenin, but don’t canonize him.
Don’t create a cult around a man who fought against all kinds of
cults throughout his life.
Don’t peddle artifacts of this cult.
Don’t trade in Lenin.
In view of the extravagant cult of Lenin that would develop later in the Soviet Union, the text is insightful to the point of clairvoyance. But the readers of Lef were never to see it. According to the list of contents, the issue began on page 3 with the leader “Don’t Trade in Lenin!” But in the copies that were distributed, this page is missing and the pagination begins instead on page 5. The leadership of Gosizdat, which distributed Lef, had been incensed by the criticism of the advertisements for Lenin busts and had removed the leader. As if by some miracle, it has been preserved in a few complimentary copies which made it to the libraries before the censor’s axe fell.
Gardens do not wait. Weeds grow and flowers wilt. In the days and weeks following my father's death, my parents' garden continued to flourish and demand our attention, for plants do not know grief. When it came to our garden, my parents were a team. My father — dyslexic, spatial thinker, and dreamer — looked [...]
January 2015 sees the addition of 226 biographies to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, offering the lives of those who have played their part in shaping British history between the late 20th and early 21st century. The sectors and professions each of these individuals influenced range from medicine to film, including Nobel Prize and Oscar winners. Explore our infographic below as we highlight a selection of these new lives: some well-renowned, some lesser-known, yet all significant.
The New Year brings with it a new instalment of Oxford DNB biographies which, as every January, extend the Dictionary’s coverage of people who shaped British life in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. This January we add biographies of 226 men and women who died during 2011. These new biographies were commissioned by my predecessor as editor, Lawrence Goldman, but having recently assumed the editor’s chair, I take full and appreciative responsibility for introducing them.
The new biographies bear vivid witness to an astonishing diversity of personal experience, individual achievement, and occasional delinquency; and they range from Claude Choules (b.1901), the last British-born veteran of the First World War, who died at the age of 110, to the singer and songwriter Amy Winehouse (b.1983), who died from alcohol poisoning aged just twenty-seven. The great majority of the people whose biographies are now added (191, or 84%) were born before the outbreak of the Second World War, and the majority (137, or 60%) were born before 1930. Typically, therefore, most were active between the 1940s and the 1980s, but some (such as Choules) are included for their activities before 1918, and several (such as Winehouse, or the anti-war campaigner, Brian Haw) only came to prominence in the 2000s.
The lives of Choules and Winehouse—the one exceptionally long, the other cut tragically short—draw attention to two of the most significant groups to be found in this new selection. A generation after Choules, many Britons served bravely during the Second World War, among them the SOE veteran Nancy Wake who led a group of resistance fighters and who killed German soldiers with her bare hands; SOE’s French section sent 39 women agents into France during the war, and Wake was undoubtedly among the toughest and most redoubtable. Her fellow SOE officer, Patrick Leigh Fermor, is best known for his capture, on Crete, of the German officer General Kreipe—an event that was retold in the film Ill Met by Moonlight (1957). In March 1942 Leslie Audus was captured by the Japanese and put to work in a slave labour camp. There he employed his skills as a botanist to create a nutritional supplement from fermented soya beans, saving him and hundreds of his fellow prisoners from starvation. After the war, Audus enjoyed a distinguished scientific career though, with great modesty, he made little of his remarkable prison work, which remained known only to former captives who owed him their lives.
The troubled creative life of our latest-born person, Amy Winehouse, is representative of a second significant group of lives to emerge from our new set of biographies. These were the entertainers for whom the celebrity-devouring world of show business was a place of some highs but ultimately of disenchantment and disappointment. Forty years before Winehouse came to public attention, the singer Kathy Kirby enjoyed a glittering career. Ubiquitous in the early 1960s with hit after hit, she was reputedly the highest-paid female singer of her generation. However, she failed to adapt to the rise of rock’n’roll, and soon spiralled into drug and alcohol abuse, bankruptcy, and psychiatric problems. The difficulties Kathy Kirby experienced bear similarities to those of the Paisley-born songwriter Gerry Rafferty, best known for his hit single ‘Baker Street’, which deals with loneliness in a big city; Rafferty too found fame hard to cope with, and eventually succumbed to alcoholism.
Of course, not all encounters with modern British popular culture were so troubled. One of the longest biographies added in this new update is that of the actress Elizabeth Taylor who shot to stardom in National Velvet (1944) and remained ever after a figure of international standing. While Taylor’s private life garnered almost as much attention as her screen roles, she’s also notable in pioneering the now popular association between celebrity and charitable causes—in Taylor’s case for charities working to combat HIV/AIDS. To that of Elizabeth Taylor we can also add other well-known names, among them Lucian Freud—by common consent the greatest British artist of his day, whose depictions of human flesh are unrivalled in their impact and immediacy; the journalist and author Christopher Hitchens, who made his career in the US; Ken Russell, the enfant terrible of British cinema; and the dramatist Shelagh Delany, best-known for her play, A Taste of Honey (1958).
In addition to documenting the lives, and legacies, of well-known individuals—such as Freud, Hitchens, and Delaney—it’s also the purpose of each January update of the ODNB to include people of real historical significance who did not make the headlines. In creating a rounded picture of those who’ve shaped modern Britain, we’re helped enormously by more than 400 external specialists. Divided into specialist panels—from archaeology and broadcasting to the voluntary sector and zoology—our advisers recommend people for inclusion from long lists of possible candidates. And it’s their insight that ensures we provide biographies of many less familiar figures responsible for some truly remarkable achievements. Here is just one example. Leslie Collier was a virologist who, in the 1960s, developed a heat-stable vaccine for smallpox which made possible a mass vaccination programme in Africa and South America. The result was the complete eradication of smallpox as proclaimed by the World Health Organization in 1980. How many figures can claim to have abolished what was once a terrifying global disease?
Whether long or short, good or bad, exemplary or tragic, or something more nuanced and complex in-between, the 226 new biographies now added to the Oxford DNB make fascinating—and sometimes sobering—reading.
Featured image credit: Amy Winehouse, singing, by NRK P3. CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0 via Flickr.
Today, 8 January, would have been Elvis Presley’s 80th birthday. In remembrance of his fascinating life we’re sharing a slideshow from the beautiful images inElvis Presley: A Southern Life by Joel Williamson. How did this Southern boy make it from Nashville and Vegas, to Grafenwoehr and the White House?
Elvis with his parents, 1950. Joseph A. Tunzi/ JAT Publishing.
Elvis Presley with Scotty and Bill poster, Cape Girardeau, Mo., July 1955. Taken at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tennessee. Thomas Hawk, photographer. Available via Flikr.
Elvis on his way to fame at the Louisiana Hayride, 1956. LSU-Shreveport Archives and Special Collections.
An impromptu session with Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, and Johnny Cash at the Sun Record Studios in Memphis, Tennessee, on December 4, 1956. Originally published in the Memphis Press-Scimitar. Courtesy of the Memphis and Shelby County Room, Memphis Public Library & Information Center.
Headline and 1956 photo from article on Elvis and Mae Axton, who wrote “Heartbreak Hotel,” just after the record sold 1 million copies, 1956. Published in the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Courtesy of the Memphis and Shelby County Room, Memphis Public Library & Information Center.
Elvis Presley in Grafenwoehr, 1958. Courtesy of U.S. Army Garrison Grafenwoehr.
The façade of Graceland in the late 1950s or early 1960s.
Elvis during his ’68 Comeback Special on NBC. Available via Joseph A. Tunzi/ JAT
Elvis and Priscilla’s wedding at the Aladdin Hotel, Las Vegas, May 1, 1967. Available via Getty.
Priscilla and Elvis at a dinner. Memphis and Shelby County Room, Available via Memphis Public Library & Information Center.
Elvis after a performance in Las Vegas, January or February 1970. Available via Joseph A. Tunzi/ JAT Publishing.
Elvis rehearsing in Las Vegas for his 1970 documentary, “Elvis: That’s the Way It Is. Available via Joseph A. Tunzi/ JAT Publishing.
Elvis Presley meets President Richard Nixon on December 21, 1970. White House Chief Photographer Oliver F. Atkins. General Services Administration. National Archives and Records Service. Office of Presidential Libraries. Office of Presidential Papers. Collection RN-WHPO: White House Photo Office Collection (Nixon Administration), 01/20/1969–08/09/1974.
Marquee of the International Hotel, Las Vegas, 1971. Available via Joseph A. Tunzi/ JAT Publishing.
From just behind the gates at Graceland, a look at the mourners gathered on the day Elvis died, as the police try to hold back the crowds, August 16, 1977. Photographed by Saul Brown. Memphis and Shelby County Room, Memphis Public Library & Information Center.
Featured image credit: Headline and 1956 photo from article on Elvis and Mae Axton, who wrote “Heartbreak Hotel,” just after the record sold 1 million copies, 1956. Published in the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Courtesy of the Memphis and Shelby County Room, Memphis Public Library & Information Center.
Today, 8 January, is the 80th birthday of Elvis Presley. Born to Vernon Elvis Presley and Gladys Love Presley (née Smith) in 1935, the ‘King of Rock and Roll’ left an indelible mark on American popular culture. In celebration, we present a brief extract from Elvis Presley: A Southern Life by Joel Williamson.
One photograph of the small Presley family captures the essence of their lives then and thereafter. Elvis, about three years old, is posed with Gladys and Vernon. Elvis is standing, and his parents are sitting on either side of him.
The exact date of the picture is unknown. Decades later it showed up in the photograph collection of the Official Elvis Presley Fan Club in Leicester, England. Interviews with pediatricians, pediatric nurses, mothers, fathers, grandmothers, and grandfathers have estimated Elvis’s age.
The blank, clean, slightly gray background is probably the concrete wall of the brand-new Lee County jail in Tupelo. Vernon is a prisoner, having been arrested on November 16, 1937, for forging a check. The county jail had recently been built by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a New Deal project to employ the unemployed. Previously, county prisoners had been lodged in the run-down town jail. Only the white prisoners were moved to the new jail.
In the photograph, mother, child, and father are close, body to body as if huddled against a coming moment of separation. Gladys’s left arm reaches behind and across Elvis’s back to Vernon. Her open hand rests lightly on Vernon’s left shoulder, as if to hold him in gently, to affirm her presence with him. It is a hand that seeks to comfort, but its loose openness signals her powerlessness.
Vernon had been charged with forging a check on Orville Bean, the dairy farmer who was his landlord and employer. He had been arrested and arraigned during the fall term of criminal court. He pled not guilty, but he would not get a speedy trial. His plea came too late for him to be tried in the fall term of court. His case would have to wait for the spring term, which began six months later on Monday, May 23, 1938. Before the court convened that spring, the local papers were full of suggestions that the docket was overfull and that justice in Lee County must be meted out more rapidly than before.
Only days before Vernon’s case would have been tried, he changed his plea to guilty. Justice swiftly followed. On Wednesday, May 25, Judge Thomas H. Johnston sentenced Vernon to three years in the state penitentiary. He got no credit for the six months he had spent in the county jail. After sentencing came the anxious wait before the prison guards trucked him off to Parchman Farm.
On Saturday, May 28, Circuit Court Clerk Joe J. Kilgo wrote out the papers committing Vernon and eleven other convicts to Parchman. The twelve men waited in the county jail for the dreaded arrival of “Long Chain Charley,” a sergeant on the guard force at Parchman who circulated through the state collecting convicts for transport to prison. He always brought a long chain to which he shackled his prisoners to prevent their escape.
Six months in the county jail waiting for a trial had been bad enough, but there was always at least some hope for relief. Orville Bean might decide not to press charges against Vernon. Relatives and friends might somehow intervene. If it came to a trial, a good lawyer might rise to defend him and the jury might find him innocent. Having changed his plea to guilty, Vernon faced the certainty of serving at hard labor in a notoriously tough prison for three long years, years in which he could not come home every night to his wife and child in their little two-room wooden house in East Tupelo nor earn money to support them.
Sensing the pathos in the photograph does not require knowledge of its history. The bodies of the man and woman are tense with anxiety and dread. The child is anxious and confused. Vernon has put his hat on his head as if making ready to leave. He faces the camera, but his eyes cut to his left as if watching fearfully for someone or something to appear that he already hears. Gladys also stares to the left, her body stiff.
The little boy’s gaze is less focused, as if he were told to look at the camera but senses something he needs to see off to the left too. He wears bib overalls over a dark, long-sleeved shirt, charmingly trimmed with white cuffs and a white collar. Gladys is a talented seamstress. She wears a flower-print dress. Her dress, like Elvis’s shirt, is attractively set off by a collar of a different color. Elvis, like his father, wears a hat. His hat seems almost man-sized, cocked at a rakish angle on his round little head. His full cherubic lips are twisted down to the right as if he realizes that he should say something and set his jaw in some certain way to assert an attitude, but he doesn’t know what to say or how.
This is the earliest photograph of Elvis. The photographer was most likely a friend or a relative who had driven Gladys and Elvis a couple of miles over from their home in East Tupelo. It was a defining moment in the lives of Elvis, Gladys, and Vernon Presley, individually and collectively. The very fact of the visit, the camera, and the one photograph that has been preserved indicates that they understood that they were at a critical juncture in their lives. The petty and foolish crime that Vernon committed in the fall of 1937, when he was twenty-one, Gladys twenty-five, and Elvis less than three, deeply marked their lives.
Can reading a book actually make your life better, even if you don't necessarily love the experience of reading it? In this entertaining memoir, Miller puts this question to the test by doing the actual work of reading. A lot of reading. Anyone who has ever fudged the facts when someone asked them, "So, what [...]
Mr. Ferris and His Wheel
by Kathryn Gibbs Davis
illustrated by Gilbert Ford
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014
The reviewer received a copy of the book from the publisher.
In 1893 Chicago hosted the World's Fair. How could Chicago make a lasting impression on the world after Paris revealed the Eiffel Tower at the previous World's Fair? A contest was held, and George
Two new biographical films give viewers an opportunity to see diametrically opposite approaches not just to biography, but to film narrative itself.
A warning: I saw Mr. Turner and The Imitation Game months ago (as part of the annual Telluride at Dartmouth festival), and my thoughts here are based purely on memories that are getting ever dimmer. Nonetheless, the differences between the films are so striking that I couldn't help but keep thinking about them, to keep reading about the stories' subjects, and to keep coming back to the idea of how information is conveyed through moving pictures.
I went into both films with relatively high expectations, since I adore Mike Leigh's work and I had very much enjoyedHeadhunters, the previous movie directed by Imitation Game'sMorten Tyldum. And overall I did like both Mr. Turner and The Imitation Game; however, "like" is part of a broad spectrum, and for me, Mr. Turner was a powerful emotional and aesthetic experience that made it among the best movies I've seen in a long time, and The Imitation Game was an entertaining way to spend a couple hours.
The audience responses to the two films were interesting, in that The Imitation Game seemed to be a real crowd-pleaser, while Mr. Turner... Well, let's see. There was a couple behind us who didn't seem to be having a very good time, and somewhere in the distance somebody was snoring, then when we walked out to the lobby, a couple of nice young Dartmouth students working as ushers stopped me and one of my companions: "We're sorry," they said, "but we just need to know — what did you think of that?" I think my companion said she thought it was pretty but that Timothy Spall's performance was very off-putting, and I think I mumbled out something like, "Bloody genius! Overwhelming!" The students clearly found it almost an impossible film to even have an opinion of, a film that was so outside their protocols of evaluation that it might as well have been an alien object.
The Imitation Game takes very good care of its audience. It works hard to keep the viewer from confusion, it provides plenty of exposition, its score sets up emotional moments, and it simplifies the history it represents so determinedly that it is, in the most shallow sense of the word, satisfying: it fits its subject to the limitations of a limited form. It's the cinematic equivalent of a TED Talk.
Mr. Turner is not much interested in providing the viewer with exposition. Its narrative approach could be described as starting from the middle of in medias res. It doesn't explain who its characters are, what their relationships to each other are, or why they behave the way they do. As viewers, we're required to pick up on cues, like strangers in a new city or guests at a party where we don't know anybody. It's a deeply internalized narrative form, and it can feel unstructured, though it's not at all. It's vaguely akin to cinema verité, but perhaps closer to Chekhov's plays, which David Magarshack astutely described as plays of "indirect action".
Indeed, in some ways what we see with The Imitation Game and Mr. Turner is not so much an aesthetic difference between biopics, but a much deeper and older difference: that between the well-made play and realism. This is not to say that The Imitation Game works like a Scribe play, but rather that it sticks to old narrative conventions of character relations, suspense, and denouement, and it does so quite skillfully — it's no surprise that it topped the Black List of unproduced screenplays in 2011, because it shrinks the story of Alan Turing into a pleasing and recognizable form.
Mr. Turner is far less interested in fitting its tale into a familiar form. Instead, white Mike Leigh and his accomplices have done is take some of the actual history of J.M.W. Turner in his later years (mostly the last decade of his life) and roam around in it, dramatizing not only the known history but also some of the amusing tales and rumors that rose up around him (good stories, but unverifiable). The desire of the film seems to be not to teach us anything, but rather to let us hang around in some of the moments of Turner's life. It concludes with his death, but not in any satisfying way — instead, we are left with the uncomfortable sense of missed opportunities and incomplete actions that accompanies the end of even the longest of lives. For the viewer who has been able to enter into the movie's indirect approach, to feel a way into the film's feelings, it's profoundly moving. For the viewer who hasn't, the effect is bewildering, anticlimactic, and just plain odd, a mix of "That's it?" and "So what?"
For me, the narrative approach of Mr. Turner seems more honest and respectful toward the history than the approach of The Imitation Game, where a complex history is quite severely reduced so as to make it more dramatically comprehensible and familiar. It's odd that The Imitation Game has to give credit to Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges; it would be more accurate to credit the film as "based on a handful of sentences in a big book by Andrew Hodges and a whole lot of imagining by Graham Moore". Some people have criticized it for not depicting Turing's homosexuality enough, and there's something to that, though it's not so much a lack of attention to his sexuality as a question of emphasis and detail — the BBC film of Hugh Wheeler's play Breaking the Code is far more effective at conveying the complexities and realities of homosexuality in Turing's life. (For The Imitation Game, it seems it's the chemical castration that's the most interesting part of Turing's sexual history, since it leads to a climactic weepy moment.)
While Mr. Turner is not remotely a documentary, and admittedly adds in a few events that are likely untrue, on the whole it is remarkably faithful to what is known and what can be known about Turner's life and era. Leigh can accomplish this because he doesn't feel any need to force the film into the form of a traditional story. By abandoning the most traditional, familiar conventions of storytelling, he's free to keep things as odd and messy as they may have been in real life.
Both films are carried by their lead actor, but again the differences are sharp. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Turing as the cousin of his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. It's a generally endearing portrayal; nobody makes this sort of character as charming and delightful as Cumberbatch, and he's in danger of typecasting. (I love his Sherlock, but am most impressed by him as an actor in Parade's End, because there he had a truly difficult acting challenge: to convey meaning and emotion while portraying someone who has deeply repressed their emotional life. It's an extraordinary acting challenge because it requires that the actor do as little "acting" as possible, and it is that sort of challenge — not the showy Oscar-bait stuff — that separates the great actors from the merely talented. I would have preferred more of that performance in Cumberbatch's Turing and less of Sherlock.) But there's also something plastic about the performance, something that seems to me more appropriate for a comedy — I sometimes thought Cumberbatch edged toward Michael Palin territory.
Timothy Spall's performance as Turner is astounding, but also, for many people, so off-putting that it makes actually watching the movie difficult. (Or so they told me.) For me, it was riveting, because though Spall snarls and growls and mutters and spits his way through the movie, it's not a grandstanding performance because the physicality is so at odds with an inner life that Turner struggles to communicate and that only fully comes out in his art. One of my favorite scenes in the film has Turner standing at a piano as a woman plays it. He is clearly moved by the music. Then, he starts singing. He's a terrible singer, of course, but he so commits himself to the song and so lets the music sink into himself that the moment is extraordinarily complex: we want to laugh, yes, because it's like watching an overgrown hamster try to sing like Pavarotti, but quickly we also can't help but see the human being within, the rough son of a barber who taught himself to appreciate so much that was considered high-class and beyond him, the great artist trapped in the man's body. It's a moment absurd, beautiful, and sad all at once. That's the strength of this film, the greatness of its art: it is absurd, beautiful, sad, horrifying, weird, funny, beguiling, and so much more all at once.
The other performances are as layered and interesting as we've come to expect from Leigh (although Joshua McGuire's portrayal of John Ruskin, while hilarious, seemed a bit too over the top in comparison to the other performances in the film). Dorothy Atkinson deserves every award out there for her performance as Turner's housekeeper, Hannah Danby — she transformed herself even more fully than Spall, but is similarly capable of conveying extraordinary amounts of emotion and information through glances, gestures, and posture. It's a performance that, like Spall's, could easily have become caricature, but rises to far greater heights.
The cinematography in Mr. Turner is also extraordinary. (I remember nothing of the cinematography of The Imitation Game.) The way that Leigh and his director of photography Dick Pope are able to set up shots and capture light is not precisely Turneresque (though a few scenes from Turner paintings are reproduced); instead, it creates the feeling of showing us the kind of light that Turner would have interpreted through paint. It allows us to imagine that we see not Turner's paintings, but what Turner painted, and what he saw in the world that inspired him toward painting. (In that sense, it reminds me of Jean Lépine's magnificent cinematography in Vincent & Theo, another great film about a great artist.)
I expect The Imitation Game will be up for more awards than Mr. Turner, because The Imitation Game is such an easy film to like — it's the nice guy you're always happy to have over for dinner because he can get along with anybody and he always has a few amusing stories to tell. But you're happy he also goes home after a couple of hours, because really he doesn't have a lot to offer. Mr. Turner is thornier, a movie that, like its subject, makes no effort to be likeable, and so in the end is something much more than likeable: a work of art that trusts its audience to catch up, to play along, to reflect and wonder, and to live with complexities of ordinary, extraordinary life.
In celebration of the recently published biography, Elvis Presley: A Southern Life by Joel Williamson, I thought I would share some memories of Christmas past. In the 1970s we listened to Elvis on vinyl. Every December when it was time to decorate the tree you could hear the deep dulcet warbling of Elvis coming from the hi-fi. Some of my favorite Elvis renditions of Christmas songs follow.
With the tree up and ready to be decorated we’d pop on the Elvis to kick off the Christmas season with “The First Noel”.
In the kitchen we’d often hear my mother sing along to “Winter Wonderland” as she made stained-glass window cookies to hang on the tree.
One of my dad’s favorites was “Silver Bells”. He’d sing along so that it sounded like Elvis was his backup singer.
My best friend Tracy had an artificial, all-white tree bedecked in tinsel and lit solely with blue lights. In the evenings we’d just sit in her living room watching the tree as she and Elvis sang “Blue Christmas”.
Now that I am older, I still like to listen to Elvis when I decorate for Christmas. Then when I have everything just the way I want I like to get a crackling fire going, turn down the lights, plug in the tree, toss back a few slugs of egg nog, settle into a comfy couch with someone special, and listen to Elvis’s “Merry Christmas Baby”.
Here’s hoping your stocking is stuffed with Elvis this season. I find he makes the holiday merry.
Headline image credit: Elvis! Photo by Kevin Dooley. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.
At Powell's, we feel the holidays are the perfect time to share our love of books with those close to us. For this special blog series, we reached out to authors featured in our Holiday Gift Guide to learn about their own experiences with book giving during this bountiful time of year. Today's featured giver [...]
I’d email first drafts of my chapters for “Strong Inside” to my mom and dad, and I soon discovered why the messages I’d get back only contained suggestions from my mother: my father understood from the very beginning that I’d feel a whole lot better about my book if I knew I did it without major input from him.
Which isn’t to say that he had no influence. His fingerprints are all over it, but more in the sense of lifelong lessons on reporting and writing: avoid clichés and unnecessary words; find the universal in the particular; do the reporting.
Growing up, the people who came to visit our house for dinner or picnics were mostly journalists—I’d sit around on the periphery of the conversations and listen to the joy everyone took in describing great lead paragraphs, or scooping the competition. (I also remember the time Bob Woodward brought my sister and I some 45-RPM records, including “Safety Dance,” and the time Sarah and I tried to trick John Feinstein into eating a dog biscuit). Growing up in the home of a Washington Post journalist meant reading a great newspaper every morning—and reading great writing is the best way to learn to write. (Another childhood memory: Each morning, I’d spread the Post out on the dining room table, read the sports section first, and our family sheepdog, Maggie, would hop up on the table, park her body on top of the rest of the paper, and then lap up the milk from my cereal bowl when I was nearly done. Wow.)
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My father did not become a published author until after I graduated from college, but one of the lessons I’ve picked up from him in this later stage of his writing career is the concept of “go there.” For him, that meant traveling to Vietnam for one book, moving to Green Bay, Wisconsin, for the winter for another, and flying to Kenya, Indonesia, Hawaii and Kansas for his bio of Barack Obama.
In my case, going there meant two things: seeing my adopted hometown of Nashville through the eyes of my subject, Perry Wallace, and trying to travel back in time to the 1960s in as many ways as possible. On the time-travel side, I set my satellite radio to the 1960s channel and spent my 45-minute commutes to my “day job” listening to the songs Wallace and his contemporaries would have heard while he was making history as the first African American basketball player in the Southeastern Conference. I watched movies from the period, and read books about the Sixties that had nothing to do with Wallace’s story but shed light on the culture of the times in interesting ways (in addition to my dad’s many books that are set in the decade, one of my favorites was Mark Harris’ book, Pictures at a Revolution, on the five movies nominated for Oscars in 1967).
It was seeing Nashville through Perry Wallace’s eyes that produced the most valuable anecdotes for the book. I’ll forever remember the afternoon we spent driving around the town he left 44 years ago. He showed me the houses he grew up in, the parks he played in, the schools he attended. Driving past one house, he saw an old friend sitting on the front porch and jumped out of the car to say hello. Driving past a street corner in a now-fashionable part of town, he explained that in 1955, standing on that same corner, he had been stunned by a carload of white teenagers who pointed a gun out their window at him, pointing it, pointing it, pointing it, as the car slowly made its way around the corner. And as we drove past a baseball field, he asked me to stop the car. We got out, and he pointed to a thicket of rocks and trees behind the outfield fence. “See that rock?” he asked. “That’s where I sat and meditated over my decision whether to go to Vanderbilt.”
Suddenly I was standing next to Perry Wallace in the present, but also sitting next to him on that rock in 1966.
At Powell's, we feel the holidays are the perfect time to share our love of books with those close to us. For this special blog series, we reached out to authors featured in our Holiday Gift Guide to learn about their own experiences with book giving during this bountiful time of year. Today's featured giver [...]
The disease that carried Mozart off 224 years ago today was as sudden as it was mysterious. It struck during a year in which he was uncommonly healthy and also spectacularly productive. Only its essential elements are known, the most striking of which was progressive swelling (i.e., edema) of the entire body, ultimately so profound that a few days before Mozart died he was unable to make the smallest movement and had to be fitted with a gown that opened at the back to facilitate changing. By then, according to his son, Carl Thomas, he also had a stench so awful (likely due to retained urinary waste products), that “an autopsy was rendered impossible.” Although Mozart was the disorder’s most notable victim, he was by no means its only one. According to Dr. Eduard Vincent Guldener von Lobes, one of several consulting physicians: “A great number of inhabitants of Vienna were at this time laboring under the same complaint, and the number of cases which terminated fatally, like that of Mozart’s, was considerable. I saw the body after death, and it exhibited no appearances beyond those usual in such cases.” Von Lobes’ statement was recently confirmed by Zeger, Weigl and Steptoe, who found a marked increase in “deaths from edema among young men” recorded in Vienna’s official daily register in the weeks surrounding Mozart’s death compared with previous and following years.
Although over 100 different diagnoses have been proposed as the cause of Mozart’s fatal illness, none fits its character, course, and epidemiological characteristics better than acute glomerulonephritis – acute inflammation of the microscopic filters of the kidneys (the glomeruli) induced by a preceding streptococcal infection. Mozart, in fact, was no stranger to streptococcal infections and their complications. He had a series of severe illnesses as a child, which were almost certainly recurrent episodes of strep throat and streptococcus-induced acute rheumatic fever. Therefore, if his final, fatal illness was acute, post-streptococcal glomerulonephritis, it would have been just one of many times his life could have been cut short by an encounter with streptococci. However, unlike acute rheumatic fever, post-streptococcal glomerulonephritis is typically a benign disorder of young children, which virtually always resolves fully in a matter of weeks. How then, could acute, post-streptococcal glomerulonephritis explain not just Mozart’s death, but also those of the many other young Viennese men who died of “edema” during the winter of 1791/2?
The answer lies with the particular species of streptococcus responsible for the cases of acute glomerulonephritis. Streptococcus pyogenes is the species of streptococcus responsible for the vast majority of acute post-streptococcal glomerulonephritis (also “strep throat’ and rheumatic fever) – those benign cases, involving children who recover completely after relatively brief illnesses. There is, however, another rarer form of post-streptococcal glomerulonephritis, a much severer form, which attacks and sometimes kills adults. It’s caused by a different species of streptococcus, Streptococcus equi, the agent responsible for “strangles,” a highly contagious infection of horses. The bacterium also attacks cows, and in rare instances in which humans are infected, consumption of milk or milk products from S. equi-infected cows is responsible. The infection produces an illness typical of acute glomerulonephritis, in which over 90% of the victims are adults. One in 50 dies, even with the best care available today. One in 20 requires renal dialysis to recover, which, of course, was not available in Mozart’s day.
In the final analysis, of the myriad diagnoses proposed to date, only an epidemic of acute post-streptococcal glomerulonephritis caused by milk or cheese contaminated with S. equi, explains both the clinical and the epidemiological features of Mozart’s fatal illness.
Headline image credit: Mozart family portrait, circa 1780. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
A lot is made of the romance of bookstores. The smell of paper! The joy of discovery! The ancient, cracking leather bindings of books with dated inscriptions! And it's true that bookstores are magical places to browse and linger — just maybe not in the two days before Christmas. Because in the swirling mad hum [...]
The Iridescence of
Birds: a book about Henri Matisse
By Patricia MacLachlan; Pictures by Hadley Hooper
A Neal Porter Book/Roaring Brook Press. 2014
To write this review,
I borrowed a copy of the book from my local public library.
The Iridescence of
Birds is an informational picture book biography that is breathtaking from cover to cover. Author