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Borgen - Season 1
Borgen - Season 1
DVD ~ Sidse Babett Knudsen
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5.0 out of 5 stars the most exciting, challenging adult television in years --- all 30 hours, in Danish, December 17, 2014
This review is from: Borgen - Season 1 (DVD)
My wife and I emerged from a 30-hour binge of three seasons of “Borgen” --- 1,800 minutes in Danish, with subtitles --- exalted and limp, weepy and thrilled. Writing, acting, directing: this series about Danish coalition politics is simply the best television we’ve seen in years. After, as we talked about it, we hit upon a reason why: no graphic sex. This may seem strange --- they’re very free and open about sex in Scandinavia, aren’t they? Yes, they are, which may be why showing people kissing and then having the proverbial cigarette in bed after sex is quite sufficient for Scandinavian TV. In contrast, American shows like “The Affair” feature lovers throwing one another against walls and ripping into each other’s flesh like weasels. Watch an hour or three of “Borgen,” and, in addition to the high level of intelligence of its drama, you’ll have fresh contempt for the silly porn on America’s “adult” dramas.

Down Under
Down Under
by Sonia Taitz
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.72
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars First love, second chances. Sounds great. But her first love is... Mel Gibson., October 28, 2014
This review is from: Down Under (Paperback)
Back when Mel Gibson was Mel Gibson, he made some movies on the block where Sonia Taitz lives.

Sonia Taitz is married. A mother. Not looking to stray.

But…. Mel Gibson?

“Imagine the sizzle of seeing Mel stroll by the MealMart on West 79th Street, slipping into this trailer!” she recalls.

Then Mel stopped being Mel and starting spouting anti-Semitic clichés.

Sonia Taitz’s grandfather was killed by Cossacks. Her father spent World War II in Dachau. She learned languages in this order: Yiddish, then English, then Hebrew.

Mel Gibson faded as a fantasy. And ascended as a character:

“What makes people hate like that? And how could my local hero feel that way? In researching Mel’s childhood and adolescence, both of which took place in New York State, I began to create a plausible story of how he was wounded, and warped, as a child. I added a Romeo and Juliet/ Jew and non-Jew slant to the fictionalization: The boy based on Mel falls in puppy love with a Jewish girl who spurns him. He wants to run away with her, but the plan fails, and he is whisked, instead, to Australia. This romantic disappointment, coupled with his father’s views on Jews, lights a dangerous long fuse. Decades later, a star in decline, he journeys back to find the girl who jilted him.”

First love, second chances — that’s the engine for a novel. (And love between apparent opposites is, for Taitz, a logical step. In her excellent novel, "In the King’s Arms," her heroine is a young New York Jew at … Oxford.)

“Down Under” starts with this: “In the middle of the journey of her life, Jude Ewington realizes that she is starting to see real lapses in the looks department.” How cool. An echo of Dante (“Midway upon the journey of our life, I found myself within a forest dark, for the straightforward pathway had been lost”) followed by contemporary slang (“the looks department”). I took out my pen and started marking.

Here’s the first chapter. Brisk. Smart. Really well observed. With a least three perceptions you might want to mark and think about.

What are the odds Jude will leave her marriage and zoom off to Tahiti with a man she hasn’t seen in decades? Not good. Collum Whitsum — that’s Mel — isn’t aging like Jude in a suburban, American way. This is not “the middle of the journey” for him. He’s an actor, a star. He’s old. So his suffering — his “constant boring pain” — puts him on “a hero’s sort of quest.”

We flash back and forth from Jude to Collum. Her marriage, his marriage. Her childhood, his childhood. The comparisons are stark. Her childhood is modestly Jewish compared to his Catholic upbringing — his father is so crazy that if he were Muslim, he’d pledge himself to jihad. So there’s real tension as a badly damaged Mel — I mean Collum — leaves Australia and makes his way to Westchester.

I’m not a fan of fancy plotting. Taitz isn’t either, but the book is much more than Collum and Jude. Jude has a troubled son and her sort-of-friend has a troubled daughter, and these kids — new generation versions of the young lovers that Jude and Collum once were — are crucial to the plot. There’s good stuff in those chapters, but I was eager for the Jude-Collum fireworks to begin. And Taitz kept me… waiting. Which proves two things. 1) She’s good. 2) I’m impatient.

Better than the story, in any case, are the perceptions. Sonia Taitz knows a lot about people: how they are, what they want, “the broken-hearted child that often lies beyond the rise and fall… of complex people who self-destruct.” Of recent books I’ve read, in fact, no one knows more about what she calls “emotional kamikazes.” Who are, in our fantasies, many more than Mel Gibson and his long lost high school sweetheart.

Elsie de Wolfe's Paris
Elsie de Wolfe's Paris
by Charlie Scheips
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $36.06
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26 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The greatest party of its kind of the century --- and the last, October 15, 2014
This review is from: Elsie de Wolfe's Paris (Hardcover)
It won’t do to describe Charlie Scheips, as his site does, as a “curator, art adviser, writer and cultural historian.” He’s all that, but in Manhattan, this description is close to generic. What distinguishes Charlie Scheips from the art mob is his range. He knows everyone –– instead of a photograph, his book jacket image is his portrait, painted by David Hockney — and instead of serving up a smart spin on the latest trend, he scores actual scoops.

Like, for instance, a treasure trove of close to 200 unpublished photographs of Elsie de Wolfe’s 1939 “Circus Ball.” He’s used these as the centerpiece of a book like no other. On the surface, it’s a voyeur’s dream, a behind-the-scenes look at the high water mark of a kind of entertaining that went extinct two months later, when Hitler invaded Poland. But more, it’s a deep dive, an X-ray of an elite Society that took dinner parties and balls as seriously as we take our work — because it was their work.

As Scheips writes: “This book is my search to bring back a lost moment in time, when men in white tie and women in elaborate evening dresses saw the occasion of a grand ball as an expression of sophistication and a means to confirm the existence of a civilized life — and have fun.”

Ephemeral? Beyond. As a biographer of Proust has noted, “Even the greatest hostess is forgotten when the last of her guests dies.” But to Elsie and her crowd, an invitation to a great party was the equivalent of immortality. Now, in a book, they actually have it.

When she hosted the last Circus Ball, Elsie was 81. She’d done it all: She’d been an actress, America’s first interior decorator, longtime companion of the very rich Bessie Marbury, and bestselling author.

In 1903, touring the Palace of Versailles, de Wolfe and Marbury found an abandoned Louis XV pavilion. They bought the Villa Trianon and, with Marbury’s fortune, restored it. In 1926, de Wolfe married Sir Charles Mendl; as Lady Mendl, she did less decorating and more entertaining. She became a pillar of Society, famous for being famous and ripe for inclusion in a Cole Porter song, because “everybody” knew she did headstands as part of her morning exercises:

When you hear that Lady Mendl standing up
Now turns a handspring landing up
On her toes,
Anything goes.

The Circus Ball of 1939 — the second of an annual event given on the final evening of the social season — featured bejeweled white Lipizzaner horses and even more bejeweled guests. The beauty part: Scheips also takes us backstage, to the preparation of a circus ring, the feeding of the ponies, the icing of the champagne, the three weeks of preparation, the planeloads of roses.

And then the war came, and the Mendls fled to America.

Imagine the Titanic, iceberg approaching, as the glittering passengers danced.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 23, 2014 5:23 AM PDT

The News Sorority: Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric, Christiane Amanpour—and the (Ongoing, Imperfect, Complicated) Triumph of Women in TV News
The News Sorority: Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric, Christiane Amanpour—and the (Ongoing, Imperfect, Complicated) Triumph of Women in TV News
by Sheila Weller
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $20.23
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28 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Later: an invaluable media text. Now: an invaluable media text with plenty of revealing, insider dish (popcorn not included), September 30, 2014
If you want to pay me $15 million a year, I promise never to say a bad word about you. I will work until I drop. I will be a saint to my staff. And if our project fails, I will take all the blame.

That’s not how it works in television news, which is why there’s enough backbiting, envy and ambition in “The News Sorority: Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric, Christiane Amanpour — and the (Ongoing, Imperfect, Complicated) Triumph of Women in TV News” to fill almost 500 pages.

On one level, “The News Sorority” is a serious book, a valuable history of a transitional era in media that will be read and taught long after no one can remember why “anchor” doesn’t just apply to boats.

For now, though, it won’t be read that way, for “The News Sorority” is a dish fest — if you care what Katie and Diane and Christiane are really like, for God’s sake do not start reading on a Friday night, because you’ll miss Bill Maher and may just be finishing when John Oliver comes on.

How dishy? Like this:

When Diane scored an interview that Katie wanted, Katie asked, loudly: “I wonder who she blew this time.”

Diane, on wardrobe choices for women in broadcasting: “Always wear clothes in fabrics that men like to touch.”

Katie once told an executive she’d been fired — she hadn’t been — so could get a promotion to a job she wanted.

Diane’s such a slick politician that “she thinks she doesn’t leave fingerprints — but she leaves cat paw prints on people’s foreheads.”

Katie gave a Christmas party for her entourage that could be seen by lesser staffers at the lesser party.

Diane once had her then boyfriend Richard Holbrooke call a production assistant and reduce her to tears.

And Christiane? Where’s that dish? Scarce. Very scarce. She never said she went to Brown — although she was a housemate of John Kennedy Jr., she graduated from the University of Rhode Island — but if that was your misimpression, she wasn’t always quick to correct it. In the early days of CNN, she sometimes cleaned the foreign desk with Fantastik. And, much later, she wasn’t above saying, “Do you know I’m the world’s best known foreign correspondent?”

There’s not much dish on Amanpour because she’s the real deal, an old-fashioned correspondent who runs toward trouble and doesn’t neuter her reporting with the bulls*** false equivalency of too many of her colleagues. Her reporting in Bosnia is probably the single biggest reason Bill Clinton and Tony Blair intervened in that humanitarian crisis. And her dispatches from the Middle East could be tough on Israel.

Because most readers will probably skip or skim the chapters about Amanpour, this book is, for practical purposes, about Katie and Diane and their footrace to be the first female anchor of the evening news. That gives the book the feel of instant nostalgia. As Weller writes, “The venerable six-thirty news broadcast has been a classy feature of American conversation almost since the beginning of television, but it was also a relic of another era: before 24-hour cable and the Internet, which gave the news in real time; before the complicated, constantly in flux schedules of modern life.” Translation: The 6:30 PM network news is as dead as disco. And that makes Katie and Diane’s careers seem like a fool’s errand, a waste of time and talent. Yes, they broke the glass ceiling, but no women will stand on their shoulders. They were the first — and the last.

I loved Weller’s last book, "Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon — and the Journey of a Generation" for its authoritative reporting and deep understanding. Like that book, “The News Sorority” is exhaustively reported. And unauthorized, which is a good thing — can you imagine if Katie and Diane and their handlers had final approval of the manuscript? This would have been the story of the Bobbsey Twins and their bookish friend Christy. And I wouldn’t have lost a weekend and you wouldn’t have read this.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 14, 2014 5:05 PM PDT

Popular Problems
Popular Problems
Price: $9.99
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74 of 80 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars 'No one can sing a Leonard Cohen song like Leonard Cohen can't.', September 23, 2014
This review is from: Popular Problems (Audio CD)
Leonard Cohen is 80.

“Popular Problems” is his 15th collection of original songs.

It’s tempting, given those facts, to think that he’s slowing down.

That would be wrong — Cohen has never been fast.

The refusal to speed — the pathological unwillingness to write a song that rips you out of your chair — is the through-line of Cohen’s career. He says so himself, in “Slow,” the first song on the new CD:

"I’ll get there when I do
Don’t need no starting gun
It’s not because I’m old
And it’s not what dying does
I always liked it slow
Slow is in my blood."

Slow, as in sex. Slow, as in speech. Slow, as in graceful movement and calculated expression. Slow, as in philosophy: nowhere to go, no hurry to get there.

“When you’re chasing buzz,” someone said of Tina Brown, “you’re always behind.” Cohen, timeless, was generally ahead of his time. And now time has caught up to him — he’s right on time. On our time, which begs us to jump off the hamster wheel, think, look and breathe. Our time, which begs us to recover our selves. Time, the ultimate popular problem.

From the beginning, Cohen focused on creativity rather than career. He knew what he had to work with, and he played to his strengths. Or, rather, as I explained in a New York Times piece a few years ago about "Old Ideas", he played to his weaknesses: "His range as a composer is limited; as he has noted, 'People said I knew three chords when I knew five'” His vocal range is even more limited. A fan got it exactly right when he said, 'No one can sing a Leonard Cohen song the way Cohen himself can’t.' The dirge-like songs and midnight voice that result are an easy target for reviewers. He’s 'the poet laureate of pessimism.' 'The grocer of despair.' 'The godfather of gloom.' 'The prince of bummers.' And, inevitably, 'music to slit your wrists to.'”

But because his “limitations” are violations of the basic beliefs of the music business, they ironically became his strengths.

In a appreciation of Cohen, I shared a revealing story:

“Roshi [his Zen master] came to the studio one night when I was recording ‘New Skin for the Old Ceremony.’ That was in the seventies. In those days I was being written off as a morbid old depressive drone peddling suicide notes. (Still am, in some circles). Roshi slept through most, but not all, of the session. The next morning I asked him what he thought. He said, ‘Leonard, you should sing more sad.’ That was the best advice I ever got. Took a while to put it into practice.”

Slow and sad and increasingly spare. How does “Popular Problems” differ from other Cohen CDs? It’s more stripped down, more electronic — like the skeletal Cohen, it doesn’t have an ounce of fat. Which pushes the words and the delivery forward. And, of course, the subject of these songs, which is love, which Cohen describes as that “very dangerous area where the possibilities for humiliation and failure are ample.”

At 80, Cohen announced, he’d start smoking again. On this CD, he already did.
Comment Comments (8) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 1, 2014 2:52 PM PST

Heigh Ho
Heigh Ho
Price: $10.00
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8 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This is magnificent, challenging, adult music, this is what music aspires to --- this is Art., September 18, 2014
This review is from: Heigh Ho (Audio CD)
“I got a new CD today,” I said. “Guess who?”

“Josh Ritter,” the 12.5-year-old replied.


“Blake Mills,” she said.

Right answer. And a funny answer. We laughed and laughed.

Why funny? Because it’s completely correct that 12-year-olds should loathe Blake Mills — he’s from a breed unknown to young music fans: a pure artist.

Oh, I’m sure he knows the power of a dollar — he produced the next Alabama Shakes CD, which should pay a lot of bills — but the beauty of Blake Mills is that his primary concern is making music that’s absolutely authentic to the moment of creation. And then, because he’s a genius at the editing console, authentic to the possibilities of production.

Until this CD, he’s been so low-profile as to be subliminal. His first CD, 'Break Mirrors,' featured a cover photo that wasn’t him. And he was as likely to play in a surf shop as on a stage.

But he’s just too good not to get noticed. Eric Clapton called him “the last guitarist I heard that I thought was phenomenal.” Fiona Apple showcased him on tour. And now we have a CD released on a real label, with his picture on the cover, even if it’s mostly obscured by giant type. Well, he can push/pull all he wants. He can’t hide the bottom line: This is magnificent, challenging, adult music, this is what music aspires to, this is Art.

Mills has a deeply idiosyncratic attitude about words, and the title of the CD is a tell. “HEIGH HO” first suggests a song from a 1937 Disney movie about Snow White: “Heigh ho, heigh ho, it’s off to work we go…” The dictionary definition is all over the map: “used typically to express boredom, weariness, or sadness or sometimes as a cry of encouragement.” Meaning, exactly, what?

So when it comes to lyrics, he’s not entirely trustworthy on the question of sincerity. In “Don’t Tell Your Friends About Me” we find my apologizing --- one phrase, repeated seven times. As sung, that brutally honest repetition is powerful and then some. But in the same song, I find irony:

"You said you just needed some time to adjust
Then here’s 48 hours, 3 weeks, and 2 months.."

My takeaway: We shouldn’t over-think his lyrics. Better to just listen, and listen closely.

“The singer/songwriter thing is a lifelong study of one’s self and the human experience,” Mills has said. “All we’re doing is trying to invent words for things that people have felt or might feel at some point. That’s the job.”

Wouldn’t it be fantastic if more musicians felt that way?
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 14, 2014 10:51 PM PST

The Fame Lunches: On Wounded Icons, Money, Sex, the Brontės, and the Importance of Handbags
The Fame Lunches: On Wounded Icons, Money, Sex, the Brontės, and the Importance of Handbags
by Daphne Merkin
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $20.97
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12 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars She's the queen of oversharing --- and that's good news for her readers., September 17, 2014
Daphne Merkin is frighteningly intelligent. You only have to read a few paragraphs of her writing to know that she’s read, heard and seen everything written, recorded and filmed, and that, for good measure, she has a point of view about her subject that is dramatically different from every other writer. But Daphne Merkin is not only deeply smart, she is deeply troubled. She’s the queen of Too Much Information, though in her case the oversharing is the point.

She was, she tells us, born into a family of casually Orthodox Jews. They Merkins were rich — they lived in a Park Avenue duplex, they had a house staff — but money somehow didn’t seem plentiful. Her father was successful and distant. She could never get close to her mother; young Daphne had a “sense of not having been loved — or, to put it more precisely, responded to in a way that felt like love.” At 5, she began “to be apprehensive about what lay in wait for me.” At 8, she was “wholly unwilling to attend school, out of some combination of fear and separation anxiety.”

But she could write. Lord, could she write. When she was 21, she reviewed a book by Jane Bowles. Woody Allen wrote her a fan letter: “You’re wasting your gifts on reviewing.” They became friends. Many years later, over lunch, she told him she felt more depressed than usual. With that, as she writes in this collection of pieces, the interrogation began:

"How depressed? he immediately wanted to know. Quite depressed, I said. Did I have trouble getting up in the morning? Lots, I answered. Did I ever stay in bed all day? No, I said, but it was often noon before I got out of my nightgown. But of course I continued to write, he said. I answered that I hadn’t written a word in weeks. He looked quite serious and then gently asked me if I had ever thought about trying shock therapy. Shock therapy? Yes, he said, he knew a friend — a famous friend — for whom it had been quite helpful. Maybe I should try it.

Sure, I said. Thanks. I don’t know what I had been hoping for — some version of come with me and I will cuddle you until your sadness goes away, not go get yourself hooked up to electrodes, baby — but I was slightly stunned. More than slightly. I understood that he was trying to be helpful in his way, but it fell so far short. We shook hands on Madison Avenue and then gave each other a polite peck, as we always did. It was sunny and cool as I made my way home, looking in at the windows full of bright summer dresses. Shock therapy? It wasn’t as though I hadn’t heard of it or didn’t know people who had benefited from it. Still, how on earth did he conceive of me? As a chronic mental patient, someone who was meant to sit on a thin hospital mattress and stare grayly into space? Didn’t he know I was a writer with a future, a person given to creative descriptions of her own moods? Shock therapy, indeed; I’d sooner try a spa.

It suddenly occurred to me, as I walked up Madison Avenue, that it might pay to be resilient, if this was all being vulnerable and skinless got you. People didn’t stop and cluck over the damage done unless you made it worth their while. Indeed, maybe it was time to rethink this whole salvation business. Or maybe I was less desperate, less teetering on the edge, than I cared to admit. Now, that was a refreshing possibility."

Now that I’ve suggested the psychological terrain — and these are just the top notes, expressed as vulgar journalism — what about “The Fame Lunches: On Wounded Icons, Money, Sex, the Brontės, and the Importance of Handbags,” Daphne Merkin’s new collection of essays? There are 45 of them, and the topics are, as they say, wide-ranging.

Merkin is extremely conscious of surface appearance, especially her weight, so there’s an essay called “In My Head I’m Always Thin.” “Our Money, Ourselves” tracks her family’s public philanthropy and private tightness: “At some point I took to muttering darkly to my mother that charity began at home, but she would always fix me with a contemptuous look and ask, ‘And what exactly is it that you lack?’ She managed to make me feel ungrateful and grabby at once.”

There are meditations on stars, most of them damaged icons ripe for her healing analysis — Marilyn, Michael, Truman, Courtney. Her take on Princess Diana’s marriage will suggest the tone: “I find myself wondering how Diana’s life might have turned out if she and Charles had bonded over their shared lack of childhood, their virtual abandonment as children. …What would have happened if they had the patience (on his side) and endurance (on hers) to address their mutual longings for love and nurturance in each other?”

There are book reviews, many of them learned, some of them esoteric. Zingers appear — on John Updike: “He began to seem like a man who always wore a hat to work.” — but the general reader may feel lost. No problem. This isn’t a book you read cover-to-cover in an evening. It’s a book you dip into, reading what you like, skipping what doesn’t appeal.

Tina Brown told Daphne Merkin, “The art of self-exposure is not simply catharsis.” True, especially for Daphne Merkin. I know her just well enough to believe she found only modest catharsis in writing these pieces. She’s after something bigger, smarter, grander. And in her endless distress, she often finds it.

Quattro Parole Italiane: 12 Notecards and Envelopes
Quattro Parole Italiane: 12 Notecards and Envelopes
by Louise Fili
Edition: Cards
Price: $13.04
29 used & new from $9.65

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars In a digital world, Louise Fili creates analog beauty. These cards are a delight., September 1, 2014
The last time I wrote about Louise Fili on, my readers bought so many of her Perfetto Pencils that Amazon sold out and her publisher called me to ask how that happened.

Now she’s produced a box of a dozen note cards and envelopes that are just as distinctive. “Quattro Parole Italiane” is the idea. Four Italian words: ciao (hello), auguri (greetings), grazie (thank you) and prego (with pleasure).

Why are these cards so striking? It’s not the words, which are refreshingly ordinary, but the typography, which is dramatic and different and, at the same time, nostalgic and familiar, taking you back to visits to small towns in Italy or, more likely, period movies like The Conformist.

Why cards? Fili explains:

"Once, when I was in Milan researching a book on Italian art deco, I found myself one stifling afternoon in a magazzino — a warehouse — filled with printers’ proofs of labels and other ephemera from the 1920s. And I found a series of pasticceria papers, all created by hand. They were the most unusual and beautiful graphic work I’d seen in a long time. I brought them back to New York, where they ended up having a great influence on my design voice. Quattro Parole Italiane is a love letter to the anonymous designers who provided me with such unforgettable inspiration."

An Italy lost, an Italy of the imagination — this is Fili territory. In a digital age, her work couldn’t be more analog. And more specific: Her inspiration is an era in Italian design that begins roughly in 1920 and ends with the neonization of signage in Italy around 1960. You get the idea: Louise Fili may live and work in New York, but her head and heart resides in Italy.

But let her explain….

"When I was 16, I took my first trip to Italy with my parents, who were both born there; it was their first trip back. I remember taking a flight into Milan, and as we were leaving the airport, the first thing I saw was an ad for Baci Perugina —that was the only type on it. I was immediately fascinated by the billboard, which showed a couple in a passionate embrace. I knew that Baci meant “kisses,” but I didn’t know that it was advertising at all. It didn’t matter; I was smitten. It was a three-way epiphany for me, because that’s when I fell in love with type, food, and Italy all at once."

She started her career as a book designer, and quickly advanced to the top of that field; from 1978 to 1989, she was art director of Pantheon Books, where she designed 2,000 book jackets. When she opened her own studio, she made a sharp turn into restaurant logos and food packaging. You’ve seen her work: Tiffany, Paperless Post, Williams-Sonoma, Sarabeth’s, Tate’s Cookies and many more.

The first office for her design firm was in her home. Now she walks to work, but her office fools visitors — it could almost be an apartment. For Fili, all work spaces are launching pads: “Surrounded by objects that I treasure, I always feel at home, and at the same time I am transported to Europe on a daily basis.”

The Curse of Van Gogh
The Curse of Van Gogh
by Paul Hoppe
Edition: Perfect Paperback
Price: $13.21
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A gifted art thief is going straight. Oops, he isn't. That's his bad luck. It's our good luck., July 29, 2014
When I met Paul Hoppe all those years ago, he was a callow young Washington lobbyist and I was a callow young journalist. Worlds collided, and we became friends. Does that compromise me? You bet. But that’s not to say I’m charmed by high-testosterone thrillers — I loathe car chases, shootouts, encounters with nasty foreigners. Happily, “The Curse of Van Gogh” features an unusual main character — Tyler Sears, a gifted art thief who is, after a jail term, eager to go straight — and 12 masterpieces in Washington’s impregnable National Gallery of Art that become his new obsession. Wait, didn’t I say he’s going straight? Yes, but that’s before he meets Komate Imasu, a mega-rich art collector who doesn’t care who he has to threaten to rip art off a museum’s wall for him. Tyler’s his patsy — he gets car chases, shootouts, encounters with nasty foreigners, and worse. Does he prevail? Better than Pierce Brosnan might.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 18, 2014 4:02 AM PDT

Old Filth
Old Filth
by Jane Gardam
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.38
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5.0 out of 5 stars Early in this book, my heart ached for little Eddie Feathers. At his death, I nearly wept., July 23, 2014
This review is from: Old Filth (Paperback)
On a long drive, with a choice between NPR and Classic Rock, we chose NPR. Soon we were listening to a program about summer reading. I have trouble finding new fiction that makes me want to read the second paragraph. But not the hosts of this show. For them, there were “great reads” — page-turners like Gone Girl — and “beautifully crafted” books. They liked the great reads; they swooned over beautiful craft. Really, there was no book they didn’t love.

What does “beautifully crafted” mean? This: The plot is secondary, the characters are precious, you’ll drown in metaphor, and the structure has been fractured so you’re here on one page, decades removed on another. In a word, “beautifully crafted” is everything I loathe.

But what if a book is actually a model of craft and a great read?

That rarely happens — but I’ve just read one.

Jane Gardam didn’t start writing until she was 43 and the youngest of her three children was off to school. Now 85, she has published 25 books. She’s the only writer to have won the Whitbread for best novel twice. She’s been nominated for the Booker. Among Those Who Know in England, she’s on a very tall pedestal.

In 2005, Gardam was short-listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction for “Old Filth.” Let’s not misunderstand: Filth means “Failed in London Try Hong Kong,” which is what Edward Feathers did. He became a rich, successful lawyer there, and then a judge, and now, as the novel begins, he’s 80, and, with his wife Betty, retired to the English countryside.

“Pretty easy life,” remarks a judge who knew him well. “Nothing ever seems to have happened to him.”

How could you — an American reader — possibly care about this man?

Simple: No one really knows Edward Feathers. He’s held it all in. Only when his wife dies does he become unmoored enough “to flick open shutters on the past.” And because Gardam knows everything about this man’s life — every hidden event, every unspoken longing — what she delivers in 289 pages is an unimaginably satisfying and involving book. “Old Filth” is like no other recent novel I can name; it reads as much like exhaustively researched biography as brilliantly paced fiction.

“Old Filth” may seem to be a study of a relic of the British Empire, but it’s really a love story —- no, a loveless story. Eddie Feathers is born in Malaya. His mother dies three days after he’s born. His father is so remote that “he turned away from women’s beauty to the beauty of the whiskey in the glass.” Eddie is sent to live with relatives in England, and then to a boarding school. He makes such friends as he can, but he is basically alone. He’ll become impeccably tailored — his surface is flawless — and emotionally stunted. He and Betty will be well-mannered strangers to one another. The marriage will be childless: “If you’ve not been loved as a child, you don’t know how to love a child.”

The “beautifully crafted” part? The writing, which is the opposite of what the NPR hosts mean. Gardam is crisp. At 80, Feathers is still “lean as a cowboy.” Lines in a letter, written after his wife’s death, from the only woman who knew enough of him as a young man to love him: “I often think, when I’m reading in the papers about a murder, that the murderer is the last person to be aware of the crime.” (She’ll go on to write: “I can’t love. I’m all charm.”) And the way Feathers comes upon his wife’s obituary — it’s worth the price of the book just to read that paragraph.

The greatness of fiction is that we come to care about people who never were. Early in this book, my heart ached for little Eddie Feathers. At his death, I nearly wept.

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