Recent Reading 17

The latest in a sequence of lists of recently-read books, listed in reverse chronological order.

  • Gautam Raghavan (Editor) (2018): West Wingers: Stories from the Dream Chasers, Change Makers, and Hope Creators Inside the Obama White. Penguin. Fascinating accounts from a very diverse group of people who worked in the Obama White House, diverse in terms of ethnicity, religion, background, and role.
  • Geoffrey Elliott and Harold Shukman (2013): Secret Classrooms: An Untold Story of the Cold War. Faber and Faber. A fascinating account of the British Government’s Joint Services School for Linguists (JSSL) which trained selected national servicemen (conscripts) in Russian and a few other languages between 1951 and 1960. Many graduates went on to illustrious careers across society, including the two authors. I have met several graduates of the US military’s similar school in Monterey, CA, which started with teaching Japanese in November 1941, and they were all very bright people. How short-sighted that the UK Government does not continue with such training.
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Recent Reading 16

The latest in a sequence of lists of recently-read books, listed in reverse chronological order.

  • Leo McKinstry [2019]:  Attlee and Churchill: Allies in War, Adversaries in Peace.
  • Isidor F Stone [1947, this edition 2015]:  Underground to Palestine: And Other Writing on Israel, Palestine, and the Middle East (Editor: Mark Crispin Miller).  A superb first-hand account of the Bricha (or Bericha) Movement, the Jewish underground railroad in Europe immediately following WW II, spiriting Jews from the USSR and Eastern Europe, particularly Poland, Hungary and Slovakia, to the Middle East.  For most people this was illegal, and was completed against a British blockade of Palestine.  In Stone’s account, Czechoslovakia was the most friendly of the EE governments towards Jewish citizens and displaced persons in transit. (HT: JG)
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Clive James RIP

Clive James (1939-2019) has just died. He was a poet, novelist, writer, TV critic and TV showman famous as a wit and a humorist, although I never found him to be very funny. Strangely, not actually being funny is apparently not a barrier to acquiring a reputation as a comic writer, as the careers of Howard Jacobson and Saul Bellow demonstrate. Jacobson, an Honorary Life Member of the UK branch of the Expatriate Australian Mutual Admiration Society, praises his fellow Society member in today’s Grauniad.

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Recent Reading 15

The latest in a sequence of lists of recently-read books, listed in reverse chronological order.

  • Michael Ovitz [2018]: Who is Michael Ovitz? A Memoir. USA: WH Allen.  This is a fascinating and well-written autiobiography by the co-founder and driving force behind Creative Artists Agency. CAA grew from nothing to dominate the agency business in movies and TV, and then entered M&A consultancy and advertising.  I always admired the chutzpah of this strategy and marveled at its success.  The book explains how CAA’s creative bundling of the products of its writers, actors, musicians, directors and producers enabled it to grow as an agency, and also enabled the diversification:  the expertise gained in strategizing and financially evaluating creative bundles was used to value Hollywood studios (with their back catalogues) as potential acquisition targets. Likewise, the creativity in bundling and the access to diverse talent was used to design successful advertisements.  What surprised me reading this book was that the diversification ended after just two acquisition assignments and one advertising project (Coca Cola’s polar bears).  The key reason for this seems to have been the opposition of Mr Ovitz’s partners and colleagues at CAA, despite the handsome and arguably unearnt rewards his efforts brought many of them.  No good deed ever goes unpunished, it seems.  // The book also presents his experiences as President at Disney.  Although of course we only hear his side of that story, he does seem to have been undermined from before he even began work there. // Overall, the writing is articulate and reflective, and he seems to have grown personally through his career and his apparent failures.  I greatly admire his continued desire and willingness to learn new things – new skills, new businesses, new industries, new cultures, new hobbies.  Doing this requires rare, personal courage.  Few people in American business were as willing as he was to immerse themselves in Japanese culture when doing business in Japan, for instance.  One characteristic Mr Ovitz does not ever display is smugness, and this absence is admirable.
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Recent Reading 14

The latest in a sequence of lists of recently-read books. The books are listed in reverse chronological order, with the most recently-read book at the top.

  • Kate McClymont and Linton Besser [2014]: He Who Must Be Obeid. Australia: Random House.   The life and fast times of Eddie Obeid, perhaps, despite the strong calibre of the competition, the most corrupt person ever to be a Cabinet Minister in NSW.
  • Bob Carr [2018]: Run for Your Life.  Australia:  Melbourne University Press. A memoir mostly of Carr’s times as Premier of NSW (1995-2005), running a government which was, untypically for NSW, seemingly uncorrupt.
  • Aldous Huxley [1931]:  Music at Night and Other Essays. Flamingo reissue.
  • Keith Gessen [2018]: A Terrible Country. Fitzcarraldo Editions.  Writing as smooth as a gimlet, and extremely engrossing.
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Recent Reading 13

The latest in a sequence of lists of recently-read books. The books are listed in reverse chronological order, with the most recently-read book at the top.

  • Dan Shanahan [2017]: Camelot Eclipsed: Connecting the Dots.  Independently published.
  • China Mieville [2017]:  October: The Story of the Russian Revolution. UK:  Verso.
  • Joshua Rubenstein (Editor) [2007]: The KGB File of Andrei Sakharov. USA:  Yale University Press.
  • Henry Hemming [2017]: M: Maxwell Knight, MI5’s Greatest Spymaster.  UK:  Preface Publishing.
  • Evelyn Waugh [1935]:  Edmund Campion, Jesuit and Martyr. UK:  Longmans.
  • Alison Barrett [2015]:  View from my Tower: Letters from Prague, March 1985 – May 1988.   A fascinating series of letters from wife of the British Ambassador to members of her family about her time in Prague, in the period of stasis just before the Velvet Revolution.
  • John O Koehler [2008]:  Stasi:  The Untold Story of the East German Secret Police.  USA:  Basic Books.
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Honesty of intention

Some people I have encountered in this life have impressed me with their integrity-of-pupose, the coherence, sincerity and compellingness of their objectives and mission.  Sometimes these objectives have been political, as in the case of Don Day and Bill Mansfield.  In other cases, they have been spiritual or religious, as in the case of Jes Albert Moeller. In some cases, they are both, which seems to have been the case for Vaclav Havel.   In my experience, this human attribute is rare.  And I have never seen or heard anyone else talk of it, until now.  In Judith Wright’s autobiography, she speaks (page 234) of her partner and later husband Jack McKinney meeting her father:

That my father was grieved by my relationship with Jack is undeniable but, once they met, he gave in to Jack’s obvious honesty of intention and the needs of my own that Jack was filling. . . . “

Judith Wright [1999]: Half a Lifetime.  Edited by Patricia Clarke. Melbourne, Australia: Text Publishing.
The photo shows Judith Wright McKinney, Jack McKinney (inset) and their daughter Meredith McKinney.

Recent Reading 12

The latest in a sequence of lists of recently-read books. The books are listed in reverse chronological order, with the most recently-read book at the top.

  • Edward Fulbrook [2016]:  Narrative Fixation in Economics. UK:  College Publications.
  • Pamela Vass [2016]:  The Power of Three:  Thomas Fowler, Devon’s Forgotten Genius. UK: Boundstone Books.
  • Charles Babbage [1835]:  On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures. UK:  Charles Knight.
  • Timothy James Burke [1996]:  Lifebuoy Men, Lux Women:  Commodification, Consumption and Cleanliness in Modern Zimbabwe. USA:  Duke University Press.
  • Petina Gappah [2016]:  Rotten Row. UK:  Faber & Faber.
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Reader's Digest Condensed Haiku

From the letters column of The Grauniad of 12 April 2008:
“Like many people nowadays, I rarely have time to sit down and read a whole haiku (Letters, March 22; Letters, March 29). This prompted my “Short Poem About Brevity” –
Haiku, why ramble so?”
 
Steven Handsaker
Barnstaple, Devon

Female composers

Louise-Farrenc
Several newspapers have recently carried reviews of a new book presented short biographies of 8 female composers (Beer 2016).  It is certainly true that female composers have suffered from misogyny, and probably still do. But the situation is more subtle than it may appear at first.  The discrimination may arise because composers such as Fanny Hensel (neé Mendelssohn) wrote mostly for small-scale, intimate forms, such as lieder and solo piano.  Hensel wrote no operas or concertos or symphonies, as far as I know.   Since the industrial revolution our society, one could argue, has favoured the grand and the grandiose, so anyone who writes only in small forms is ignored.   This is true even of male composers:  Hugo Wolf, who wrote art song, is unjustly overlooked, for instance.   (This bias for the big and bombastic could also be a strongly male one.)  Against this argument that composers need to go large or be ignored, one could cite the case of nineteenth century French composer Louise Farrenc (pictured), who wrote symphonies and full-length chamber works (indeed, very good ones), yet still was ignored by the musical establishment.  Despite her music being as good as Schumann’s or Mendelssohn’s, she still is ignored.  Even Beer does not, apparently, profile her.
Hensel’s brother, Felix, was a symphonist and composer of overtures who audibly honed his technical craft writing a dozen string symphonies for the pick-up orchestra his mother assembled for the family’s weekly salon concerts each Sunday afternoon in Berlin.  Very few women composers have had such an advantage, which perhaps explains something of Felix Mendelssohn’s comparative abilities.   But Fanny Mendelssohn certainly had access to this resource.  What explains her failure to write for it? Was it some pressure in the family, or just in herself?  Did their parents, perhaps unconsciously and subtly, expect Felix to write pieces for the family salons, but not expect Fanny to do so? Was it a matter of social and class expectations of gender roles which the family had internalised? Or was Fanny simply lacking in confidence?   She once wrote a song to secretly communicate her love for the man who later became her husband at a time when her parents refused to allow the pair to meet or write letters, so it seems she could disobey the spirit of any explicit family imposition, if not the letter.
Or are we looking in the wrong place entirely here?  The Mendelssohns’ father and his brothers were bankers.  Felix’s father took him to Paris as a teenager to meet Cherubini explicitly to assess whether the boy had a future as a composer.  It is easy to imagine that his father wanted him to follow in the family bank, so perhaps Felix had to fight to get to be a composer. It was not, perhaps, that the family discouraged Fanny in particular from a career as a composer but that both children were thus discouraged, but only Felix resisted this pressure.  To be honest, however, Felix’s published letters do not reveal any such discouragement from their parents.
Reference:
Anna Beer [2016]: Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music. Oneworld, London, auK.