Because That’s What Sovereign Nations Do

Yesterday morning, as I was getting ready for Bible Study and preparing to leave home early, I was doing some reading and one of the articles I received happened to involve the vote by the Kosovo legislature to establish a professional army to replace their police force as the main security force.  The article presented this as a controversial decision, but in my own head I was thinking that this was a pretty natural and obvious decision.  Of course a sovereign nation in the Balkans would want an army, because that’s what sovereign nations do.  Much to my pleasure and surprise, nearly the exact words and the precise sentiment that I felt about the matter was expressed by the American ambassador to Kosovo, and I was left to feel whether it was a good thing or a bad thing to recognize the same obvious truth in the same manner as Trump’s ambassador to a small and new nation.  Most of the people who live around me would likely be apoplectic about noticing such a similarity, but while I was not distressed by it, I was a bit puzzled, since I have never assumed that my particular skill set would make a good diplomat.

Militaries can serve one of two purposes, and generally speaking, if they are good at one of them they are not very good at the other.  On the one hand, a military can protect the nation against foreign enemies.  The United States military is a classic example of this sort of military, but there are others (Israel’s, for example, comes to mind, as does Switzerland’s military), where there is a clear focus for the military in defending the nation’s borders or defending the nation’s interests abroad while there is a fully functioning system of civil and criminal courts ran by civilians and an internal police system that may cooperate with the military but which is essentially parallel to it.  In this sort of situation the military can draw upon a large body of trained reserves that counts as a sort of militia and where the military has a high degree of support within the patriotic population of the nation.  A military that defends a nation against foreign enemies and that can cooperate to provide some armament and/or training against domestic enemies but which allows the civilian culture to dominate at home is an army that can win the support of its people to a pretty high degree.

There are other militaries, though, whose primary function appears to be preserving an unpopular political order from domestic opposition.  This is the sort of military that one finds in most nations around the world that struggle with a lack of legitimacy in their governments, and though such nations can be found around the world, there is a stark lack of diversity in the way these nations operate.  In all of these nations there is heavy censorship of the internet and/or the press, a high degree of military and “secret police” behavior in countries, and heavy prison sentences and/or worse punishment for issues like lese majeste or treason.  Whether one ends up with a long sentence for writing critical blog posts about a beleaguered monarch or jokes in a letter end up to a long spell in a gulag, or where one’s political identity leads one to “disappear,” one has become a victim of a state where justice is not operating properly and where there is a heavy militarization of the society to the detriment of its well-being.  Obviously, in such a country, and there are many such countries, a military may be deeply feared but it is not going to be loved.

Into which of these categories does Kosovo fall?  Much here depends on the circumstances of where one finds oneself.  If you are a Kosovar of Albanian descent, and you are aware that this professionalized army is designed to protect you from Serbian agression, itself a reasonable fear (given that Serbia had invaded the area only twenty years ago in an attempt to oppress Albanian majority population), the Kosovar army at least has the potential to be the first kind of military force.  If you are part of Kosovo’s small Serbian minority, you are likely to consider yourself the sort of internal enemy that has much to fear from a professional military supported by the United States, and you have a legitimate fear that this army is not likely to view you very kindly, although you are not likely to appreciate even a Kosovar police force, even if it is a less powerful force.  The real question as to whether or not Kosovo’s army will be the kind that can be cheered on by its population or not depends on whether Kosovo’s army is one that is focused on the defense of the nation from foreign enemies or whether the army considers political opposition to a ruling regime as internal enemies that must be kept down.  In the first case, the army is likely to have a broad degree of support even if specific actions it takes might be criticized, and in the second case the army is likely to be viewed with considerable fear and negativity by a cowed populace.

It should be noted that the professionalization of the Kosovar army is not something that is going to happen overnight.  Even optimistic estimates suggest that the process could take up to a decade, and the decision, if one that appears obvious to Americans as diverse as this writer and the US Ambassador to Kosovo, is not without a significant degree of disagreement within NATO, because not everyone thinks that the move to upgrade Kosovo’s capacity of self-defense with a small but powerful army is an obvious move.  A great deal of that difference springs from situation, as the United States (rightly) sees an army as a natural and obvious aspect of a sovereign nation, while Europeans are prone to think negatively of an increase in militarism even among small peoples, possibly with a fear that breakaway parts of their own nation could develop small but powerful militaries if the balkanization of Europe proceeds apace, a fear that is not unreasonable.  A Catalan army that was able to defend its borders against incursions from Spain would likely have a high degree of popularity within Catalonia, but that is not likely to comfort other European nations, while a Flemish army capable of defending Flanders might be viewed with alarm in Brussels and Wallonia.  Still, regardless of these worries, where there is a lack of trust between a nation and its neighbors, we can expect that any people which has the power to arm itself in its own defense is going to want to do so.  Swords will not be beaten into plowshares until and unless there is a common faith in the lack of aggressiveness on the part of other nations, and those conditions are not often met even in the contemporary world.

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Book Review: The Dawn Of The Middle Ages

The Dawn Of The Middle Ages, by Michael Grant

By and large, I have become familiar with Michael Grant through his writings relating to ancient and early medieval history [1], especially as they relate to art and culture, and for the most part, this book falls along those lines.  I would not consider this book to be something I greatly appreciate, because the author clearly lacks something of the biblical viewpoint when it comes to icons and idolatry and related subject, and because his sympathies are far more with the polytheistic pagan world than with the ethical and moral demands of Christendom.  Even so, this book does at least offer some classical scholarship in an accessible way and plenty of beautiful pictures of art and material culture for a wide swath of cultures over the period of late antiquity and the early Middle Ages up to the death of Charlemagne in 814.  And if you are looking for a better understanding of this period from a cross-cultural point of view that focuses on art and that provides a great deal of understanding of political and religious history as well, this book is certainly of worth on its breadth alone.

In a bit more than 200 very large pages, this particular book provides a comprehensive look at the history of the early Middle Ages over a wide span of the world.  The author begins with a discussion of the dark ages and why he considers this view to be inappropriate.  After that the author spends some time looking at the Byzantine Empire during this period, including the reign and achievements of Justinian, the crisis of the seventh century, and the iconoclasm controversy as well as the early stages of the Isaurian and Macedonian recovery (1).  This is followed by a discussion of the rise and fall of Sassannan Persia and the birth and early expansion of Islam through the beginning of the Abassid period (2).  After that comes a discussion of the German kingdoms (3) including the Ostrogoths, Lombards, Visigoths, and the Merovingian and Carolingian dynasties of the Franks.  The author then discusses the life of the Jews as a minority people in Asia and Europe under Christian and Muslim rulers (4).  After this the author discusses various peoples of the North (5), including the Anglo-Saxons and the eventual unification of England under their rule, the Irish, and the Scandinavian peoples of Sweden, Denmark, and Norway.  Finally, the author closes with a discussion of the rest of Eurasia from Eastern Europe to East Asia (6), starting with the demographic expansion of the Slavs, then moving on to the Avars and Bulgars, Khazars, White Huns and Turks, T’ang China, and medieval India.

Although the book is very good, it is not perfect.  For example, some readers will fault the neglect of Japan, Southeast Asia, Africa (with a slight mention of North Africa and Axum), as well as the Americas.  Other readers will think that the author is a bit too kind to Islam when it comes to their moral behavior as well as their treatment of non-Arabs and non-Muslim peoples.  In addition to that, the author has a clear bias towards philosophical paganism as opposed to Christianity, and that is the sort of bias that I view as problematic at best when it comes to someone who takes it upon himself to talk about the early Middle Ages.  Be that as it may, this book is at least written with the desire of speaking widely and with some insight on a period of history that is not well understood especially in context as it relates to others.  This book is at least a good start in understanding the Middle Ages, and that is worth something.

[1] See, for example:

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Book Review: The Etruscans

The Etruscans, by Michael Grant

For a variety of reasons, I have long been interested in the language and history and culture of the Etruscans.  For one, they are an obscure people whose language is not well-understood and which are far more important than is particularly recognized with regards to the history of the classical world.  Through Rome they have deeply influenced contemporary culture even if their period of peak power and cultural influence over Italy was limited to a few brief centuries between the eighth and fourth centuries, until they were overwhelmed by the combination of increasing Roman strength and Gaulic incursions given their own chronic disunity.  Admittedly, it takes an unusual person to be deeply interested in obscure cultures, but I happen to be that sort of a person, one who wishes that some day again dead languages like the Etruscan may be able to return to life, that the way they saw the world and understood those around them may be understood, and that we may be free to see through another set of perspectives than the Greco-Roman sources that we are so frequently limited to when we understand the ancient Mediterranean world, sources whose biases we recognize but whose information we usually cannot do without.

This relatively short book of roughly 250 pages is organized in a striking and unusual way.  The author begins with a discussion of the formation and history of the Etruscan states (I), beginning with the importance of metals to the formation of many of these states (1), and then moving on to the creation of the cities as combinations of villages (2), the decisiveness of Greek influences in leading to the formation of states in order to better exploit metal and other resources for trade (3), the origin of the Etruscan people (4), and their expansion to the south (5) and north (6) in the time before 500 AD or so, when their society was at its peak.  The second part of the book examines the various independent city-states of the Etruscan people (II), starting with their chronic disunity and ineffectiveness in countering Rome (7) and then examining in turn the city-states of Tarquinii (8), Caere (9), Vulci (10), Vetulonia (11), Volatarrae (12), Clusium (13), and Veii (14), paying close attention to their art and wealth, territory, and sea and landpower, before summing up the decline and fall of the Etruscan states and the rise of Rome from the fifth century onward (15).  While the book is not exhaustive, it does a great job placing the material culture of the Etruscan states in a context and looking at the history of the cities.

There are quite a few reasons why someone would want to read this book and others like it.  For one, there is a great deal of worth in understanding the past simply so that we can better understand where we came from and gain some insight from the behavior of those in the past.  The disunity of the Etruscans and their inability to work together against common enemies to the north and south led their realms to be taken over and eventually for their language and culture to perish altogether.  Their inattention to matters of history and writing their own story led them to be viewed mainly through the biased and unreliable reportage of their Greek and Roman rivals, who viewed their women as whorish and disloyal and their men as weak and effeminate.  Obviously, a people that was capable for holding its own in Italy for several centuries as naval and military superpowers with high levels of advancement in metallurgy and engineering deserves better than to be viewed according to such libels as this people receive, but when one does not pay attention to writing one’s story, one cannot defend oneself posthumously.  And surely the Etruscan people needs a great deal of defense when it comes to being understood, even if their internal and external disunity among the various city-states kept them from achieving the power that could have been theirs had they been able to coordinate responses to Roman and Gaulish military expansion.

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You’re The Man Now, Dog

There are videos more than nine minutes long that contain almost entirely “You’re the man now, dog” being repeated over and over and over again on loop.  In case you do not believe this, I can affirm this from personal experience.  Why do such things exist?  On the surface level, we can talk about the immediate context of this meme, which is a short line of dialogue taken from the nearly universally panned film “Finding Forrester,” which has noted actor Sean Connery playing a reclusive writer who takes an interest in a young man and encourages him to become a writer as well.  What makes this meme noteworthy is that it shows an old man using slang in such a way that appears to be comical and ridiculous apart from the context of the movie, and this movie, along with the failure of “League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen” appears to have driven Mr. Connery out of acting altogether, ending a career that included a great many high points from his Bond films to Entrapment.  Yet the meme from this movie was significant enough that it helped inspire an entire genre of memes that focus on the repetition of material as part of a sound collage that is frequently unpleasant to listen to and yet often strangely compelling as well.

Most people who know what I write and who even hear me talk are aware that I love memes.  Whether one is referring to the inside joke of repeated lines like “If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball,” from “Dodgeball,” or one is referring to my love of visual memes [1], this is an interest I have kept up through the years.  Whether or not this is an interest that other people appreciate, or just put up with because a love of memes comes along with extensive reading and a high degree of attention being paid to matters of cultural significance in general is not necessarily clear, but regardless, memes are something I have paid attention to for a long time and are something I take very seriously and use on a frequent basis, especially as a shorthand of expressing a sense of the connection between real life and the world of art and literature and music.

And yet we would be mistaken if we merely thought of memes as something to laugh about and share with our friends.  Memes are not only humorous and viral, but are also an aspect of business strategy as well as the philosophy of science.  If we dismiss the importance of obscure movie references being on .jpeg or .gif files or the fondness that many of us, myself included, have for memorable catchphrases, we are missing something deeply important about contemporary culture.  For one, the promotion of bands through memes is big business in our contemporary world.  The career of Drake would be far worse if his songs did not come with “viral” dance video challenges to help make them more popular or lines that could be instantly turned into humorous memes to share with others.  If finding odd lines in a song or movie was once an organic process done by viewers or listeners that could then be shared, it is now something that is deliberately planned into creations by writers in the hope that their sharing will increase the fondness that people have for that creation as a whole.  Once something has been deemed memeworthy, it has a far greater chance of being remembered fondly than if it is deemed as competent but ordinary.

In science too, memes have a clear but often unrecognized force.  When scientists speak of memes, like Richard Dawkins they tend to use it in the context of the differences between what is viewed as human evolution as opposed to naturalistic evolution.  Leaving aside the problematic nature of information and design that is present in the world of biology, there is at least some point in contrasting natural with human processes.  After all, memes (even silly cat pictures) are elements of culture that can be spread quickly (even our use of “viral” to describe this expresses its relation to science) between people with a drastically shorter time than would be necessary if genetic mutation was needed to pass along changes in culture.  Yet it cannot be denied that most of meme culture is at best of passing amusement but not moral advancement.  And some memes can be actively harmful when media institutions attempt to inculcate a view of the world through endlessly repeated lies about the behavior of others.  Yet meme culture can at least theoretically be positive in moral nature even if, as is the case of so much of human existence, memes are not often used in a morally elevated fashion.  The Wedgewood plates of the late 18th and early 19th centuries that showed an enslaved black man with the caption “Am I Not A Man And A Brother?” were definitely memes, but were memes of a positive nature that demonstrated the value of human freedom from the coercion and oppression of slavery.  Most memes do not have anything close to that level of social benefit, but at least they have that possibility.  Like any other aspect of culture, though, memes are only as good as the character of the people who make them and of those that pass them along in response to their power.

[1] See, for example:

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Why Aren’t They In The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame: The Counting Crows

I grew up listening to this band’s music all of the time on the radio, and a fair amount of the band’s music is a part of my own personal music collection, and so I worry that my fondness for this band and their approach may be somewhat biased [1].  Strangely enough, there is a huge disconnect between the popularity of this band on radio stations (like those I grew up listening to) and this band’s chart history, which shows that the band’s first hit on the Hot 100 was the #28 Hanginaround in 1998, off of their third album, after they had several major radio hits on their first two albums.  With Counting Crows, we are faced with an issue that the band had a moody and even mopey aesthetic but managed to produce quite a few excellent albums in about a decade of major pop success before falling off due to the lead singer’s major depression issues and then the resulting exile from major label status.  Whether or not someone knows about the underlying situations behind the band’s music, though, this is a band whose insights are easy to appreciate and whose unsentimental view of life drew a lot of fans during the band’s long period of commercial success and remains true today even after the band has stopped producing very much music at all in the past few years.

The Influence Of The Counting Crows

It is hard to tell the influence of the Counting Crows for several reasons, and that is the fact that few bands have come out and claimed such an influence.  To be sure, they did help ensure the massive popularity of adult alternative music that featured witty and intelligent lyricism as well as a profoundly honest approach to mental health, and that was at least an indirect inspiration to many.  The band clearly was well-connected to other famous people, as the band members, especially its lead singer, were friends and had dated numerous other famous people both in the music and acting world [2].  The band’s music and approach is very much focused on California and its concerns and specifically the life and experiences of the band, especially Adam Duritz.  The band’s collaborations with bands like The Wallflowers showed that it was deeply involved in the adult alternative music of its age.  If it is not a band that readily comes to mind for many people, that does not mean that its influence does not run deep.

Why Counting Crows Belongs In The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame

Ultimately, the biggest case for the induction of the Counting Crows into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is the popularity of their albums and the enduring record of excellence in their music, and the continued radio play of the band’s songs long after their commercial peak.  All told, the band’s first four studio albums went at least gold (two of them multi-platinum and another platinum), and they had a platinum-selling live album as well as a gold-selling compilation album, demonstrating considerable popularity over their first decade as a band.  Although the band’s popularity fell off after that initial popularity, the songs produced during that period are well worth appreciating even now and continue to be played often on alternative and adult alternative stations to this day.  These songs include the following essential hits:  “Mr. Jones,” “Round Here,” “Rain King,” “A Long December,” “Daylight Fading,” “Hanginaround,” “Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby,” “American Girls,” “She Don’t Want Nobody Near,” and “Accidentally In Love,” along with late career highlights like “You Can’t Count On Me,” and “1492” and an excellent remake of “Big Yellow Taxi” along with Vanessa Carlton [3].  This is a body of work that deserves to be played on Cleveland jukeboxes for fans who wonder why it is that the Counting Crows’ lead singer has struggled with nervous breakdowns but somehow managed to write and sing such a lasting selection of great songs, even if only three of them ended up on the Hot 100.

Why Counting Crows Aren’t In The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame

Truthfully, the band has not been eligible for a long time, so it remains to be seen whether the band will be given its due credit over the next few years or if this band will suffer a lengthy amount of snubbing along with the other adult alternative bands of its time.  Only time will tell whether this band receives the credit it deserves or whether the absence of hit singles and Hot 100 placements for its biggest airplay hits will hurt its credibility with the nominating committee and voters for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame who may nonetheless be fond of their music.

Verdict:  Put them in, as it might lead to a late-career commercial renaissance that would be very well-deserved.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:



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Book Review: Woody Allen: Film By Film

Woody Allen:  Film By Film, by Jason Solomons

This gorgeously photographed book is probably the ideal way that someone can approach the lengthy film career of Woody Allen at least as it gets to only a few years ago.  The author is clearly a fan of Allen’s work, but not an uncritical one, and the result is a work that provides readers with an entrance into the movies of Woody Allen (and those about Woody Allen) along with a discussion of their plot, characterization, critical review, box office appeal, and their place within Allen’s body of work as a whole.  The author addresses, in an adroit and tactful fashion, the influence between Allen’s own life and art, and between what he seeks to convey in his films and the way those films are viewed in the context of the auteur and the wider world of contemporary film.  There are quite a few worthwhile quotes from the actors and actresses who have worked with Allen and found his laid-back style of filmmaking to be somewhat distressing because he had so little to say to those who acted in his films.  The result is a fascinating look at the films of a complicated man, and that is probably what the people who read this book are looking for.

The author does what he sets out to do, and that is to look at Woody Allen’s career film by film, divided by decade and treated in rigorous chronological order.  First, though, before marching along Allen’s prolific career, a task that takes more than 250 pages, there is a foreword by noted Spanish director Alfonoso Cuarón and an interview with Woody Allen himself that gives this book a semi-official status, along with a discussion of Woody as an actor and writer, his themes, styles, and motifs, and his cultural impact.  After that the author begins with his work in the 1960’s, which began with his screenwriting “What’s New Pussycat,” and dubbing “What’s Up, Tiger Lily?” as well as a part in Casino Royale before looking at his 1969 directorial debut “Take The Money And Run.”  The author moves on to his early films where he honed his work and achieved his first artistic and commercial peak, starting with the obscure “Men Of Crisis:  The Harvey Wallinger Story” before moving on to “Bananas,” “Play It Again, Sam,” “Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex (But Were Afraid To Ask),” “Sleeper,” “Love And Death,” “Annie Hall,” “Interiors,” and “Manhattan.”  The author then turns toward the often-neglected works of Allen in the 1980’s, including “Stardust Memories,” “A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy,” “Zelig,” “Broadway Danny Rose,” “The Purple Rose Of Cairo,” “Hannah And Her Sisters,” “Radio Days,” “September,” “Another Woman,” his “Oedipus Wrecks” from “New York Stories,” and “Crimes And Misdemeanors.”  After that the author looks at the mixed record of Allen’s films in the 1990’s, including “Alice,” “Shadows And Fog,” “Husbands And Wives,” “Manhattan Murder Mystery,” “Bullets Over Broadway,” “Don’t Drink The Water,” “Mighty Aphrodite,” “Everyone Says I Love You,” “Deconstructing Harry,” “Wild Man Blues,” “Celebrity,” and “Sweet And Lowdown.”  Finally, the author looks at the films that Allen has made or that have been made about him since 2000, including “Small Time Crooks,” “The Curse Of The Jade Scorpion,” “Sounds From A Town I Love,” “Hollywood Ending,” “Anything Else,” “Melinda And Melinda,” “Match Point,” “Scoop,” “Cassandra’s Dream,” “Vicky Christina Barcelona,” “Whatever Works,” “You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger,” “Midnight In Paris,” “To Rome With Love,” “Woody Allen:  A Documentary,” “Blue Jasmine,” “Magic In The Moonlight,” and “Irrational Man.”

From these discussions one can gain a certain insight about Allen and his work.  For the most part, he is able to acquire talented casts but he does not always know what to do with them.  He began with zany and comic films but frequently got darker over time.  Allen’s consistent love of escapism through film and his fondness of younger female leads is something that became increasingly problematic in the 1990’s and his aging and seeming tiredness eventually led him to cease acting even as he continued to write roles seemingly based on him played by younger actors.  He wrestled with questions of morality and identity and what it means to be an artist and frequently had trouble dealing with the way that his work was viewed as being an extension of his own personal views, which led some of his works to be viewed as a betrayal of a sort of contract between the filmmaker and the audience.  A lack of success in the USA and UK also led him in the 2000’s to continue experimenting and also to travel to Europe and work with European actors and actresses and even to get funding from European sources once the money dried up stateside, making this a work that presents some serious questions about Allen’s work and its view while also demonstrating a critical view of the author’s importance in creating genres like the mockumentary and relationship film.

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Book Review: Woody Allen On Woody Allen

Woody Allen On Woody Allen:  In Conversation With Stig Björkman, by Woody Allen

Admittedly, I have not seen most of the films this book talks about, and it would probably be ideal for a reader to have seen more of these films before reading about them, at least if a reader wants to get the inside references of what the subject and interviewer are talking about.  There is a whole genre of books like this one where famous directors and other creative people have conversations with others because their thoughts are viewed as being important enough to convey as part of ponderous books.  In reading this book, I’m not sure the subject is really worth the treatment of nearly 300 pages that this book entails.  I could see this book as being more entertaining for someone who really loved the movies of Woody Allen, and who shared his fondness for works which were ambitious and a bit less accessible than his more popular ones, but for a reader like myself, this book was more notable for the tact of the interviewer in avoiding obvious and sensitive issues of a tabloid nature and the general insularity and snobbiness of the subject’s insights, although there were some worthwhile gems in here that are worth reading, at least.

This particular book is organized in terms of the movies that the interviewer and subject talk about, in order from Allen’s beginnings in the Jewish caberet scene (1) through Take The Money And Run (2), Bananas (3), Play It Again, Sam (4), Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex But Were Afraid To Ask (5), Sleeper (6), Love And Death (7), Annie Hall (8), Interiors (9), Manhattan (10), Stardust Memories (11), A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy/Zelig (12), Broadway Danny Rose (13), The Purple Rose Of Cairo (14), Hannah And Her Sisters (15), Radio Days (16), September (17), Another Woman (18), New York Stories (19), Crimes And Misdemeanors (20), Alice (21), Shadows And Fog (22), Husbands And Wives (23), and Manhattan Murder Mystery (24).  To say this book is organized, though, is to give it a bit too much credit, as the conversations wander and twist their way and are sometimes a bit repetitive and do not always demonstrate either the interviewer or subject in the most positive light, especially when Allen insults the populist taste of American film critics and filmgoers or traditional morality.  Even with these caveats, though, there is still enough to enjoy to make it worthwhile to read this book if Woody Allen films are your sort of thing.

One of the most notable insights to gain from this particular book is that Woody Allen is both a very insular director in terms of the way that he tends to focus on what he knows best, including show biz and New York City, and ambitious in seeking to direct films that range from comic to melodramatic to tragic, which has led to a disconnect when his audience has expected something more narrow than he wanted to do, and has taken his serious statements about loving rain and dreary days as something to laugh about.  Allen’s ups and downs as a director have involved his own attempts to master the craft of directing and to tell the stories he wants to tell, but at the very least he has been able to ensure a good relationship with a studio that knows that not every film of his will make money in the United States (they tend to do better in Europe, which makes sense given Allen’s European approach to morality and aesthetics) but that if he can keep the costs reasonable he can create a film a year about whatever he wants to do, and that is a good arrangement for a director like this, resulting in someone who likes to finish his work and then move on to something else in a prolific and creative career that has spanned several decades now.

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In his novel Of Human Bondage, W. Somerset Maugham pays a great deal of attention to a small tapestry that the novel’s hero, Philip Carey, acquires during his time in France.  Receiving the gift from one of his fellow artists there, Philip is told several times that the meaning of the tapestry cannot be told to him, but it is something that he must figure out for himself.  He is aware that there is meaning in it, but he is frustrated that no one will tell him what the meaning is supposed to be.  In a pivotal moment in the second half of the novel, the character’s on-again, off-again trollop, whose adorable child he is fond of, is frustrated at her lack of control over him that her sexuality had always had, and she destroys everything he owns, including the tapestry, and Philip eventually realizes for himself at least that the tapestry is a symbol of his own life, with repetitive elements of comedy and tragedy, that symbolizes the way his life is designed by another and that no matter which way he turns he cannot escape the fact that his life has a pattern and a shape to it that reflects a larger purpose and order and structure to life.  It is a remarkable insight for someone who spends much of the novel avoiding insight by adopting a tone of false calm and irony.

In early 1971, singer-songwriter Carole King released her second album, called Tapestry.  The song has sold more than 25 million copies around the world, making it among the best-selling albums of all time.  Even if one has never listened to the album in its entirety, a lot of the songs have become enduringly popular in oldies and easy listening formats and have been covered to great affect by other artists.  Songs like “So Far Away,” “I Feel The Earth Move,” “It’s Too Late,” “Beautiful,” “You’ve Got A Friend,” “Where You Lead,” “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” and “You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman” are enduring songs, whether in her version or others.  And not only was her songwriting in fine form on the album, but she had some great help from her friends, who included such luminaries as James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, and many others who supplemented her spare woman with a piano approach.  The songs on the album have been covered by many artists as diverse as Barbra Streisand, Richard Marx, Rod Stewart, Celine Dion, Quincy Jones, Amy Winehouse, Laura Branigan, and many others.  The album as a whole managed to balance between the singer’s interpretations of her own songs that had already been hits for other musicians and new songs that reflected a strong sense of melancholy.  The tapestry that King put together was a beautiful one, but a deeply sad one.

Although I am by no means an expert when it comes to fabrics, I have read at least a few books on tapestry.  One of the most interest of these books was a new historical interpretation of the Bayeux tapestry, which tells the story of the fatal conflict between Harold Godwinson, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England, and William the Conqueror of Normandy.  The book [1] makes a persuasive case that the tapestry itself subtly undercuts the Norman claims for legitimacy by pointing out the coercion that Harold was under when he was demanded to make an oath of fealty to William after he had been shipwrecked on the Norman shore, and that William the Conqueror received a great deal of help from others (including Count Eustace of Bologne) that he did not remember after having won victory, and was in general an unsavory person who took advantage of others to improve his own position and power, leading to a great deal of injustice in England and to generations of conflict within France over the anomalous position of a duke of France being a king of another country.

And tapestries are not only subjects of great seriousness but also considerable humor and enjoyment.  A while ago, for example, I laughed at a Babylon Bee image that showed some exotic carpets at the trial for someone who had been caught up in a federal investigation.  A carpet is a source of humor in the movie Aladdin, as expressive flying carpets are something that can be considered reliably humorous to children.  I have even found humor relating to carpets in my own travels, as my trip to Turkey in 2006 included a visit to an area where people were making tapestries and trying to sell them to gullible tourists who were told that the rather plain and ordinary carpets were worth more than their inflated price, despite the fact that such carpets would have to be shipped to the United States because they were too bulky and too heavy to bring as part of one’s luggage.  I have long enjoyed my own tapestry given to me by a former boss of mine, a beautiful East Asian tapestry in dark blue of a melancholy looking woman.  And even in a country and society where fine arts are not easily appreciated, it seems likely that tapestries will be enjoyed as either a source of humor or a luxury good worth buying for some time to come, or even as a symbol of the way our own lives are woven together.


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Book Review: Side Effects

Side Effects, by Woody Allen

This particular book is a collection of short stories originally published in magazines like the New Yorker and New Republic that were written between 1975 and 1980 or so, and if you like Woody Allen’s anarchic and oddball sense of humor, there is a great deal to enjoy here.   My feelings about Woody Allen as an author are decidedly mixed, but his stories are at least far more enjoyable than his plays, and more in line with the whimsical and often enjoyable quality of his movies, and so this book has a great deal to offer even someone whose worldview is far different from that of the author.  For the most part, these stories do what one would expect, and that is provide an author who is very capable of making funny jokes to view the material of his life and perspective as the source of zany short fiction.  There is nothing that is great literature here, although these stories are certainly worthy of being considered as minor classics in the genre of short fiction, subgenre of Jewish comedic fiction.  If you have any sort of tolerance for humor told from the point of view of an educated secular Jew, there are things in here you will likely appreciate.

The stories themselves have no relationship to each other but do have a great deal of similarity by dealing with themes that the author has tackled over and over again in his writings.  There are eulogies to dead friends, jokes about the UFO menace, comments about sex phrased as advice to graduates that one would give at a commencement speech, discussions about affairs with cover stories, imaginary dialogues about Socrates (“My Apology”) and Abraham Lincoln (“The Query”), odes to the shallowest man, jokes about restaurant criticism that are combined with riffs on mathematics and politics, and even one very unpleasant story (“Retribution”) that features a man who finds out that a girl he was once interested in is far more interested in him when he marries her mother.  Given his own future, the fact that he views women with daddy issues in such a light as this carries very unpleasant resonance.  This is a collection of stories that tells a lot more about Woody Allen and his interests, both his ability to draw a laugh out of readers and the unpleasant material of his personal life, than he perhaps intended, and it is a collection that demonstrates that people should not have really been surprised about what was revealed about his life and personal character from the 1990’s, as it was in his fiction all along.

I don’t know if this is a book I can exactly recommend.  If you like the blend of real and fantasy, between humor and irreverence, between fixation on death and an open hostility towards godly moral standards that one can find in the most sophisticated comedy of our age, this book has a lot to offer.  If you see this book as providing a look into the life and mindset of Woody Allen and others like him who are wealthy and cultured secular Jews who have rejected the ways of God and even the traditions of their elders in order to seek their own pleasure and assuage their own guilty consciences however they can, this book can have some value.  For many people, this book will likely be a funny selection of comedic short fiction, and for others it offers the chance to remotely diagnose its author of all kinds of evils, and however one chooses to read this book, there is likely to be something worthwhile that one sees about ourselves as well as about the author and his particular situation among the elite of New York City.  Whether what one sees is good or bad, of course, depends vastly on one’s perspective, and reveals a great deal about where the reader stands concerning the moral seriousness of our times.

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Book Review: Mere Anarchy

Mere Anarchy, by Woody Allen

If you are reading this book, you are likely going to find at least some enjoyment in it.  Do you like a somewhat absurd view of reality that blends banal truth and obvious fantasy elements?  Are you interested in the Yiddish-American culture of New York City as well as the entertainment industry?  Have you liked one or more movies by Woody Allen (for me, interestingly enough, the first film of his I ever saw, which I liked, was Match Point)?  The more questions you can answer in the affirmative, the more likely you are to appreciate this short collection of short stories that is barely over the 150 page mark.  When I got this particular book, I didn’t know that it was short stories–I was expecting one of his plays, but I was pleased enough with the material and found plenty to smile at, and that is likely to be a response that many people have to this particular book.  A reader to this book should know what they are getting into–this book is extremely Jewish, of the kind that is self-effacing and filled with very Woody Allen-like narrators who are invariably put-upon and not entirely competent Jewish men of some kind or another.

There are eighteen short stories in this collection, and most of the stories are very short–averaging less than ten pages apiece.  If they are not the sort of stories that one could picture as being turned into full-length film treatments–which is why they are short stories collected here in a suitably anarchic collection–they are at least the sort of episodes that one could easily imagine in the auteur’s work.  The stories demonstrate the author’s love of bad puns, as nearly every story has some sort of ridiculous title that promises an equally ridiculous story, and generally delivers.  For example, among the funnier stories is the narrative of someone who writes original prayers and ends up fleeing to Tierra Del Fuego in order to avoid the long arm of gangsters who think his prayers are a sham.  In another story someone tries to avoid investing in a film project that is sure to flop because of its subject matter and approach.  Another story, set outside of New York for a change, jokes about how the law concerning not removing tags from mattresses is used to stop a rural crime wave.  Another story is a humorous negotiation between two people about a film where one party has the original prints and demands (and receives) a cut of the film’s revenue in order to hand it over.

If you didn’t know Woody Allen wrote short stories, this book is apparently one of at least a couple volumes of them, which have been published in magazines that I apparently don’t read (or else I would have known it myself).  And if you find the idea of reading short and absurd stories that would be well-suited to short films if the director ever wanted to go in that direction–which doesn’t appear to be the case so far–appealing, this book will definitely be an enjoyable one.  As someone who greatly enjoys reading about absurd situations including those relating to life in show business, this book was definitely enjoyable to me, and the works were short enough that the wide gulf between the author and I when it comes to issues of morality and belief systems.  In terms of being people with absurd and sometimes ridiculous senses of humor and a love of joking about life and its quirks as well as about matters of life and death and spirituality and culture, this book is appealing to me and likely to someone who has a similarly cerebral and offbeat sense of humor as well.

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