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Robert J. Crawford RSS Feed (Balmette Talloires, France)

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Under the Skin: A Novel
Under the Skin: A Novel
by Michel Faber
Edition: Paperback
Price: $10.29
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4.0 out of 5 stars Alien capitalists doing their thing on Earth, July 20, 2015
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This is a masterpiece of hard scifi. The narrative, of a mysterious woman hunting hitchhikers, immediately draws the reader in. Her character is angry and frequently in pain, but cunning in a cautious way. It is very subtle and a consistent portrait is built over the course of the novel. Why she is doing what she is doing remains a mystery for a long time, which is fun, though it is spelled out a good deal more clearly than it was in the film. Behind her complaints (in particular at the surgical mutilation of her original body) and class resentments, the structure of the alien society also emerges, and if it captures your imagination, it is very interesting indeed.

What is so intriguing is how slowly the truth emerges, layer after layer peeling off, often in contradiction to what the woman is thinking or assuming. For example, an elite scion arrives unexpectedly, and she wants to avoid him. Then, they have a long discussion that leads into a number of hidden places on the farm, revealing much about the purpose of their presence. He proves to be far more complex and questioning than she wants to admit to herself, though it hardly gets her to think much more.

This is a very different work than the slow, if excellent, film with Scarlett Johansson. Of course, you can get what is not explained in the film, but the plot and basic details diverge significantly, so much that they are separate works of art. Recommended.

To the Lighthouse
To the Lighthouse
DVD ~ Rosemary Harris
10 used & new from $31.94

4.0 out of 5 stars a family, time, disappointment, love, memory, July 19, 2015
This review is from: To the Lighthouse (DVD)
This is a wonderful adaptation of the Wolff novel, in which a family and their friends are seen in a brief vacation to the summer house and then in retrospect. The viewer gets to know how each of the people, with all their qualities and eccentricities, feels and perceives things. There is nothing extraordinary about them, there is plenty of tension and faults, but also as solid a bond as there can be between such disparate people. It is a question of taste and preference, but I found them absorbing and interesting.

The patriarch, an educator and philosopher, is a crotchety man whose career is on the decline, full and disappointment and regrets. He is something of a bully with some of his children, has favorites and designated failures. His wife is saintly, supporting him without question, giving to everyone, and aware of the balance of personalities and needs at every moment. She is the anchor of the family, by far the smartest one of all, a force of nature, but ill. Branaugh is a self-absorbed student and invitee, who doesn't fit in and burns with the need for attention. There are also 2 artists, one a stodgy poet out of favor and a painter-spinster who strives to meet her own highest standards. Each is a beautiful person in their own ways, but essentially mediocre. Finally, there are all of the children, ranging from the favored eldest who moves into the place of the departed mother, the middle children, and a spoilt younger boy. The personalities and places they occupy are distinct with a crystal clarity.

It is their last time all together before they leave home from marriage, deaths, and careers, initiating a deeper deterioration as the father resents his decline into professional irrelevance - he no longer has any good ideas. Yet they go to the house once again, seeing everything in retrospect, not necessarily resolving anything, but somehow feeling having come full circle, even if sadness and loss reign.

I saw this when it came out and loved it. Now, seeing it again 30 years later, I saw more layers to all the characters and was amazed at how much seemed new to me. That is a mark of great art.

I recommend this warmly, but given the price, it might be best to watch it online.

Dangerous Liaisons 1960 [VHS]
Dangerous Liaisons 1960 [VHS]
Offered by retrolink-2
Price: $49.99
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4.0 out of 5 stars perhaps the best film version, July 18, 2015
Though less slick than a Hollywood production, this is a subtle and moving update of the 18C novel of aristocratic intrigue. It has some of the best acting that French cinema has to offer, with Jeanne Moreau, Gérard Philipe, and the astonishingly beautiful Annette Vadim. Valmont, in this version, is a young diplomat, a product of the most elite French schools. He has a cynical partnership with his wife, Cécile (Moreau in a perfect casting) in which they play at sex and love, which they record in letters, disregarding the damage they wreak. They set out on vacation, setting a goal of seduction of Valmont's young cousin, but finding a surprise along the way, a young Danish woman of impeccable character whom Valmont decides to have. Of course, he can't handle genuine emotion, and it ruins everything for themselves and those they touched.

As a long-time American transplant in France, this film was a particular pleasure. I went to the school (Sciences Po) that this Valmont did and it is a good reflection of the milieu at the time, when France was brash and young, the economy booming, and everyone was obsessed with style and the pursuit of personal pleasure. The vacation setting (Megève) is even near to where I now live, the perfect resort playground for this vanished elite. The film portrays this section of bourgeois society with great accuracy and panache. The music script is also wonderful, mostly Thelonius Monk, but the jazz of that time permeates the mood of the film; it is pure gorgeousity.

If there is a criticism I have of the film, it is the light Hollywoodish moralizing at the end. Nonetheless, I recommend this with enthusiasm. Too bad it is not available on dvd.

The German Genius: Europe's Third Renaissance, the Second Scientific Revolution, and the Twentieth Century
The German Genius: Europe's Third Renaissance, the Second Scientific Revolution, and the Twentieth Century
by Erich Fromm
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.92
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4.0 out of 5 stars a dazzling intellectual history, within political and cultural context, July 16, 2015
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The principal idea behind this book is that we should not let the Holocaust completely dominate our perception of German culture. In his massive intellectual undertaking, Watson attempts to shift our attention to the flowering of the German mind from 1750 to 1933 as well as its transformation post-WWII. Though often a bit too encyclopaedic, Watson succeeds in putting it all into context without neglecting Hitler. As a read, it is thoroughly engrossing and enlightening, an inspiration regarding a subject that western historians have indeed neglected.

The story begins with the father of Frederick the Great, who began to institute a more comprehensive educational system. He was a pietist, the Prussian version of the Puritans, with a great belief in education as a way to improve one's character and, by implication, the nation; this was called the Bildung, a grounding in general culture in the humanities with an emphasis on classical antiquity. Frederick the Great expanded his father's policies, but in the tradition of the Enlightenment, his were more secular and skeptical. This led to the emergence of an educated middle class, the largest in Europe, with rates of literacy far beyond all other nations. They were to be the employees in the bureaucracy as well as replace clerics and pastors as the intellectuals in the society. This also culminated in the establishment of the modern research university in the 19C, complete with PhDs, specialized publications, and research institutes that far surpassed those in other western countries in both quantity and quality.

In addition to this, given the autocratic nature of the Prussian state, the Bildung was largely inward-oriented - encouraging introspection and self betterment rather than political reform or activism. This created a serious tension within the society, a kind of top-down imposition of policies by the state for which there was little alternative. Nonetheless, to fill the void that secularism was opening in German hearts and minds, Watson argues that philosophy rose to take Christianity's place with the idealist concepts of Kant and Hegel, to mention only two; this makes for some pretty turgid reading and cannot really serve as an introduction to the complex and often obscure contribution to western thought. Beyond philosophy, there was an extraordinary flowering in all the arts, from writers and painters to composers. That being said, the population apparently persisted in placing a significantly larger amount of unquestioning trust in the authorities, who "knew better" and had their "interests at heart"; this left the German political culture stunted and undemocratic until after WWII.

During the 19C, the innovators themselves, though too numerous to cover in any depth, are sketched out in context, often showing their inter-relationships. For example, the great German symphonies were regarded as philosophical works, mirroring their counterparts in the academy; this astonished me. Innovators included Nietzsche, who opened the way to post-modernism, essentially denying that any meaning or truth can be taken as absolute or categorical, but is only relative and uncertain. (He summed this up as "God is dead.") In the economic realm, of course, there was Marx, whose revolutionary philosophy was one of the most consequential of the 20C. Freud introduced new concepts as well, leading to a therapeutic approach that attempted to make sense of one's life as a meaningful narrative, i.e. a new kind of introspection that quickly spread to the rest of the world and remains a mainstay of the modern mindset. While the thumbnail portraits are fascinating, they are of necessity rather superficial and vary in quality. (For example, Watson makes some pretty glib claims about Freud's accomplishments, dismissing them as "wrong" or arrived at under "faulty" methods without offering sufficient proof.) I often found this frustrating.

According to Watson, it was at the dawn of the German industrial revolution that the balance of power began to change in Germany: manufacturers, managers, technologists, and financiers began to displace the cultured bourgeoisie, whose humanistic Bildung could no longer monopolize elite status outside of royalty and the aristocracy. Furthermore, scientists were also gaining in influence, again without the introspective underpinnings of the Bildung. With the lack of political reform, Watson argues, this left less and less space for the middle classes, who when the economy collapsed could offer little effective political opposition to the fascists.

To his credit, Watson acknowledges that the rise of the Nazis and their apocalyptic excesses may never be fully understood. Nonetheless, he shows how they transmogrified many of the innovations credited to the great German intellectuals, such as Nietzsche's superman concept, social darwinist racism and eugenics, and the concept of a superior "Volksgeist" or "spirit" of the German people, which was always a nebulous notion to me. Watson also covers how the Nazis and those willing to unquestioningly follow them, including Heidegger and many other intellectuals, destroyed much of the educational and research systems that had grown over the previous 200 years. As everyone know, it is a sad chapter from which Germany is still recovering.

Finally, Watson argues, once the western allies created the Federal Republic, the break with a past of political authoritarianism is at last accomplished. With the institutional groundwork imposed from outside, the protests of 1968 set off a transformation towards modern democracy, according to which the younger generation asks questions that the older one was unable to do, in particular when addressing the Nazi past. This was the least convincing to me, kind of thrown in at the end. Having lived in Germany near to this time, I still found students rather rigid in their ideologies and arrogant as to the superiority of the German culture over American capitalism ("Die Amerikaner sind alle kulturlos.") That being said, I completely agree with the author that Germany has created a decent society that has grown beyond the Nazi catastrophe.

I cannot do justice to the breadth of Watson's coverage. For example, towards the end, he abruptly gets into Heidegger's warnings about technology, which (he argues) the age of genetic engineering has proven "relevant"; I was left unconvinced and feel that Heidegger is over-rated for nationalistic reasons. Nonetheless, in terms of content, this is an exquisite sketch of the basics. I am not sure if what he claims is true - that the intellectual movements actually meant what he says they did - but the connections often made sense to me and put things in a new light. This is a great intellectual adventure and it left me very hungry for more, a sure sign of the book's success.

Warmly recommended.

Terminator Genisys
Terminator Genisys
Price: $19.99

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not bad for a reboot, but I couldn't shake that "whatever" feeling, July 7, 2015
This review is from: Terminator Genisys (DVD)
This is not a bad film, but more an attempt to resuscitate a series that has gone in too many directions with - you guessed it - a new direction. So Kyle is sent back in time, only what he discovers is that a new "time line" has been created, directly linked to events that he believes he witnessed at the moment of transport. The result is a convoluted story that takes place in at least 3 time frames - 4 if you count Sarah's recollections - in which characters meet their younger selves new personalities are forged, etc. Even though I have enjoyed all the film-length versions, I found it hard to remember who was supposed to know what when, etc. Rather than feel completely drawn into the story, I was constantly aware that someone had made it up while I waited for an inevitable conclusion. The action is spectacular, of course, but we expect that as a minimum backdrop in all these mega-productions now.

I would recommend this for action movie fans, kids, and nerdy aficionados that revel in all the nuances. But as a consumer of hard scifi, I found it rather contrived and so blatantly commercial that it was tiring.

The Agricola and the Germania
The Agricola and the Germania
by S. A. (Translator) and Radice, Betty (editor) Tacitus: Handford
Edition: Paperback
2 used & new from $5.00

3.0 out of 5 stars A dull read with a ploddingly pedantic intro, June 26, 2015
This is an older edition with the original introduction by Handford.

It is always risky to read an original source (albeit in translation). Sometimes, they astonish with with freshness and multiple levels of insight, but often they disappoint. This one disappoints, in my reading experience.

First, The Agricola is a light read, a kind of hagiography of Tacitus' father in law: he was a noble man and a hard worker and great achiever as a general and governor of Britain, whose career was cut short by a bad Emperor, Domitian. THough he should have moved up, Domitian's fear and jealously perhaps led to his assassination as a potential rival. In the end, it is a moralistic tale of rise and fall in a dangerous political atmosphere. This is fine, but in spite of its interesting subtext, it reads more like propaganda than biography. For the Roman history buff, this is a useful portrait. It just isn't very fun to read.

Second, as the first detailed source on the Germanic tribes that is almost anthropological, The Germania is invaluable for historians. But again, it is a dull and thin read. The subtext is that the Germans - a marshal people whose virtues can put Romans to shame - deserve study and even emulation. Whatever.

This brings me to the introduction: it was one of the most boring and useless that I have yet read. He goes over basic Roman history and institutions in a sketchy detail that would only be of aid to those completely ignorant of the period (which presumably isn't anyone who would conceive of reading such a recondite text). I can hope that the one in the new addition is better, which is a bar so low that it must be.

I cannot recommend this edition. The text itself is worthwhile to historians and students, but not for the general or informed amateur.

The Guns of August: The Pulitzer Prize-Winning Classic About the Outbreak of World War I
The Guns of August: The Pulitzer Prize-Winning Classic About the Outbreak of World War I
by Barbara Wertheim Tuchman
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: $6.00
118 used & new from $1.30

5.0 out of 5 stars The bold strategy that turned into hell on earth, June 23, 2015
This book covers the first month of WWI, when the sides had not yet settled into the quagmire of trench warfare. It was a time when things seemed possible, when the illusions of the traditional ways of war - where honor, valor, and elan were supposed to get men through - were giving way to the first wholly realized industrial methods of killing. Tuchman's book is a remarkable reconstruction from the point of view of the principal protagonists, i.e. the politicians, royalty, and military men. She explains how they saw the world, what they were thinking and why, and what they did.

Germany, Tuchman says, was in a kind of imperial fever since her victory over France in 1870, led by a megalomaniacal Emperor (Wilhelm II) whose grip on reality was tenuous. He wanted to dismember France, take Britain's place as the maintainer of the global order (forging an alliance between fellow "Germanics" in the process), and establish suzerainty over Russia; to do so, he was ready to start a war on 2 fronts. French leaders wanted vengeance for the past defeat, to protect itself, and teach Germany a "lesson". Great Britain wanted to maintain the balance of power, which worked in favor of its vast empire. Russia feared Germany, but its Emperor was insouciant of just about everything and the recent war lost to Japan was taken as proof of Russia's weakness. These points of view were so entrenched, according to Tuchman, that no negotiation to avoid war (or stop it once started) appeared possible. At any rate, everyone was convinced that war could not last longer than "a few months", due to cost, the need to encourage international trade, the certainty of victory, or what have you. The Sarajevo assassination provided the spark for the entire rickety system of alliances to explode.

Imperial Germany had a plan to crush France in a pincher movement, like Hannibal at Cannae, in an early form of blitzkrieg, over about a month. The trouble was, Germany would have to attack France through neutral Belgium, which would engage Great Britain to entangle itself in European affairs. Russia would be dragged in too, as an ally to France. To make matters worse, Germany adopted a strict policy of terror in the occupied territories, retaliating with extreme brutality to any resistance, which set world opinion against it; among other things, Louvain was burned to the ground, an irreplaceable cultural loss in addition to countless civilian lives. Germany's only ally was Turkey, which signed on in the last minute.

At first, all went well for Germany, though Belgian resistance was surprisingly strong, causing a slowdown. Then, Russia mobilized for war sooner than anticipated, entering East Prussia in 2 weeks and not 6. To counter this, Germany pulled a few divisions out of France, again slowing its progress; a mistake was made stretching German lines with long gaps, which the Brits and French attacked after much infighting. Paris was saved in the battle of the Marne, and the forces dug themselves in in accordance with Gallieni's system of trenches. This set the stage for the massive, unprecedented war of attrition we all know.

Tuchman portrays all the personalities involved in wonderful yet not excessive academic detail. The French Maréchal Joffre was unwaveringly optimistic, pursuing an ineffective offensive counter-attack plan, but his attitude held France together at the right moment. His German counterpart Moltke obsessively stuck to the plan, even when his lines were depleted, over-extended, and exhausted from a superhuman effort. The field Marshall John French, though reluctant and attempting to preserve the best British units (3/4 of which were to be killed in the coming months), was convinced finally to join the effort at the Marne. There are scores of other characters, all equally rich in the telling.

If there is one thing I would criticize, it is that the Germans are not given as full a portrait as the others. Tuchman clearly disliked them, which is a bias that detracts from the picture. But this truly is the only shortcoming.

This is a fantastically engaging narrative, with plenty of analysis thrown in. Warmly recommended. It deserves its status as a classic.

5070 Condiment Set by Ettore Sottsass, 1978
5070 Condiment Set by Ettore Sottsass, 1978
Offered by Speranza Design Gallery
Price: $176.00
10 used & new from $165.00

5.0 out of 5 stars a masterpiece of postmodern dining ware, June 12, 2015
This product refers back to Bauhaus goods from the 1920s, but is more ornamental. It looks like an industrial device and is highly functional in design. It is fun because you can see the color of the oil and vinegar, which can be striking depending on what you use. This is subjective, but I feel a shiver of wonder at its elegance. Unfortunately, the oil does tend to drip a bit when using, so it is more for looking at than using everyday.

Mr. Chin Egg Cup with Salt Castor and Spoon by Stefano Giovannoni Color: Red
Mr. Chin Egg Cup with Salt Castor and Spoon by Stefano Giovannoni Color: Red
Offered by musei
Price: $34.00
6 used & new from $26.26

5.0 out of 5 stars caricatural art for the home, June 12, 2015
This is one of those products that you either like at the gut level immediately or you don't. It is a simple yet distinctive design, adding a dash of humor to the kitchen and fully functional. I suppose they are for collectors, but we do use them. The hat can also serve as a salt shaker.

Alessi Cactus Glass Jar with Stainless-Steel Lid, 1-Quart 18-Ounce
Alessi Cactus Glass Jar with Stainless-Steel Lid, 1-Quart 18-Ounce
Offered by Speranza Design Gallery
Price: $50.00
6 used & new from $44.00

5.0 out of 5 stars distinctive and useful, June 12, 2015
This is part of a set that we are slowly collecting, from the "cactus" group of Alessi products, most of which are cold-pressed stainless steel. They feel good in the hand and are elegantly designed, one of the mainstays of our kitchen. These are truly of heirloom quality. Interestingly, they are much less expensive in Europe - we got ours in the Alessi outlet ship in Omegna Italy for about 1/3 the price offered here.

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