What I’m Watching Now


Another in an occasional series and one I’m sorry it took so long to watch. Cinema Paradiso rightfully won all sorts of awards when it came out in 1988. Salvatore Di Vita (“Toto”) embodies passion at every stage of his life. He falls in love with the cinema, sneaking out of the house he shares with his mother to watch as films arrive at his Sicilian village in the days after the World War II. More than that, Toto loves the mechanics of winding the film, adjusting the focus as instructed by his dear friend and mentor Alfredo, the projectionist for the Cinema Paradiso.

As a teenager, Toto’s passion of course expands to “the new girl,” but the adult Toto finds satisfaction only in directing cinema.

The genius of the film is the interweaving of  clips from classic movies in a way that reflects the feelings of the people in the village and illustrates the changing technology that allowed the medium to evolve. The sub theme of cultural change makes for an amusing counterpoint as the village priest and resident censor can no longer prevent the audiences from watching on-screen kisses. By the time Toto is ready to leave, naked flesh rules the day.

The acting doesn’t feel like acting. Toto is played with equal ferocity and passion by Salvatore Cascio (child), Marco Leonardi (teen), and with adult ennui by Jacques Perrin.

His emotional mother, Maria, who carries a secret of her own, remains gorgeous from her early years as played by Antonella Attili and as a neglected old woman (Pupella Maggio). Philippe Noiret’s Alfredo embodies all that is rustic and uncomplicated – as well as passionate and intense.

Part of the charm of the movie is its great beauty – of the countryside, the narrow passageways of the town with its classic village square, occupied by “the village idiot.” Even the men and women, more rough-hewn than Alfredo, have their singular beauty.

Cinema Paradiso is a much watch.

What I’m Reading Now


Here’s part two of a review of The Invisible History of the Human Race, written while I was reading it. This work bears no relationship to what I thought it would be. It is touted as DNA as family history, but in early pages, it’s a highly engaging history of genealogy, full of anecdotes about the author’s family. The big issue it avoids because no one has answered is why? Why do people find digging into their past so intriguing, addictive even?

Christine Kenneally more or less answers her own question as the descendant of a man consigned to Australia over the theft of a handkerchief. It’s a family with a continuing mystery about the identity of her grandfather. Who wouldn’t want to know more?

My personal answer as to why I do genealogy is: because my ancestors are there. They’re a mystery that needs solving to round out who I am. My mother did some excellent fiction around both sides of her family. We have the Lanes arriving in Hartford by boat from “Jersey” with the patriarch jumping to the dock, yelling, “Throw the baby down to me” when he thinks the boat is about to head back down river; there’s Bill Hod (Willis Howard James) who smuggled Chinese immigrants from Canada and ensured his own safety by wrapping them up and tying rocks to their feet in the event immigration stopped his boat. Who wouldn’t want to know more? So I dug in. Can Anything Beat White?: A Black Family’s Letters was the result.

On the other hand, my father’s story remains pretty much of a mystery. Like Kenneally, he didn’t know who his grandfather was – well, I think he did but wasn’t allowed to speak of it. Invisible History is satisfying my need for personal answers in the meantime.

A Plea

W.E.B. Du Bois
W.E.B. Du Bois

It’s late, and I’ve been on the run so here’s a link to a great article on how not to “celebrate” Black History Month.

My favorites:

“DON’T Ask the Only Black Person On The Team To Coordinate Something For Black History Month.”

“Invite [experts] to your company to do a lightening talk about their work. Be mindful in your invite. Do not say: ‘Hey! It’s Black History Month! And since you’re black, do you want to come speak to us?.’ ”

A corollary: If you invite someone, do it before February 1, ideally in November or December. It shows you are serious and have thought about the issue.

Also, do not ask these experts to speak gratis. They deserve respect, and compensation is one excellent way to show it. You don’t work for free, Neither should they.




What I’m Reading Now


Another in an occasional series and another that’s headed back to the library tomorrow. The Invisible History of the Human Race: How DNA and History Shaped Our Identities and Our Futures is not at all as advertised: It promised to be an in-depth, science heavy study of the human genome. It is in depth, but Christine Kenneally has written a lively and engaging portrait of the human race from before we left Africa and mated with Neanderthals to a look at promises for the future to cure or eliminate a variety of illnesses. Despite the science, Kenneally maintains a jargon-free tone.

Among the surprises are the notion that traits such as selfishness may be passed on, not by “nurture” but by nature; that migration stories are far more complicated than we previously thought; that number of cultures sanctioning and even encouraging marriage between close relatives can be staggering.

The only drawback: Invisible History is Euro-centric – not surprising considering that Kenneally is an Australian and fascinated by the convict history of the country’s white colonists. She spends much time among those folks and among the residents in obscure islands off the Scottish mainland.

Nevertheless she does an expert job with the Jefferson-Hemings connection. She also approaches the mystery of the Melungeons, the group in Appalachia who denied its African heritage – until DNA came along. That section has a fascinating discussion of how family stories and sociology play a big part in establishing and solidifying our identities.

The ethical issues surrounding DNA testing and its uses receive a thoughtful review. The debate will continue but would benefit from careful consideration of the observations in Invisible History. 

The most poignant section involves the attempts to use the rapid developments in DNA science to spare families the scourge of Huntington’s disease. Kenneally leaves us with many rays of hope, and that’s a wonderful thing.


Family copy 3

So I’m juggling projects:

  • a writing/research project to be announced later
  • updating prospective donors on the James Family Letters film project and correcting the transcript from the scholars’ meeting
  • putting the finishing touches on my presentation for Transgressing Hartford’s Color Line: The Life of Painter Charles Ethan Porter  on February 16 at the Hartford Public Library
  • outlining “An African American Family in Connecticut: From Slavery to Triumph” at the Wasch Center at Wesleyan
  • preparing to conduct a writing workshop on “Listening to the Voice Within” for Artists for World Peace
  • beginning to plot out a talk for Essex Meadows’ Arts and Exploration series

Back to work!

What I’m Watching Now


Please excuse: Preview is still disabled, so mistakes may slip through.

Like Water for Chocolate should have been called The Wages of Repression. I watched it during the Bluehost outage. Here’s a fuzzy analysis that includes  an abbreviated version of what I wrote as I read the book in 2009.

As the youngest daughter, Tita lives to serve her mother, an autocrat with a secret. The film mixes the increasing harshness of life for the upper classes during the Mexican revolution with the magical realism of Tita’s escape.

Part of the problem may have been that I was reading the book when I watched Pan’s Labyrinth. The two ran together in my dreams and in my head even though the book is set in Mexico around 1900, and the movie takes place in Franco’s Spain.

The book drew me because of the recipes that begin each chapter. This despite the fact that I could eat maybe two (the hot chocolate and the wedding cake). The rest are made with copious amounts of lard or pig innards, or both. Recipes lacking such ingredients start, “Two days after killing the turkey…” The narrative includes flocks of birds and fire materializing out of nowhere, a huge wedding gathering reduced to tears, mass vomiting, deaths and disappearances without logic. Most of those events involve Tita’s ability as a chef to evoke intense and passionate reactions.

The movie was much heavier on the magical with a resulting lack of realism. The acting fulfilled its promise in most cases except for the seriously overblown young American doctor (named John Brown) who pursues Tita and whose name evokes an image of a firebrand who sought to free the slaves. This J.B. is most definitely not a firebrand even if he’s trying to free a woman in bondage.

Aside from the mother and her vitriol, the character who shines is Gertrudis. This middle sister is so hot she burns down the outside shower and then rides off naked with the rebel Juan. And she saves the movie from being a tale of female oppression by returning as a general in the rebel army.

Final opinion? Good but not great. The film serves as another example in which the book is far superior. Despite gorgeous photography, the visual representations of sensuality – food, heat, violence – become attenuated compared to the written narrative. Or maybe it’s just my imagination.

What I’m Reading Now


Blog really is back.

The following is another in an occasional series and a book I finished in early January. Margalit Fox’s The Riddle of the Labyrinth crackles with intrigue. In fact the subtitle should have been “a mystery in three acts” rather than The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code. 

Fox presents Arthur Evans, the slap-dash amateur who discovers tablets on the island of Crete written in the ancient language Linear B; Alice Kober, the dogged scholar, constrained by time, money, and then ill health, who comes within a hair’s breadth of solving the riddle; and Michael Ventris, the brash, driven architect who solves the mystery.

On the whole, Fox sustains the narrative and offers a grand picture of Minoan life. She does on occasion get deep into the weeds of “known knowns” and “unknown unknowns” with multiple grids and linguistic juggling. There isn’t enough of meandering to detract from the way through the labyrinth, though.

Linear B lacked the Rosetta Stone that helped scholars translate Egyptian hieroglyphics. It crossed my academic path briefly during a course in ancient Greek, and the story is even better than I remember.

There are multiple layers of intrigue here besides cracking the code. The ending, though, is a letdown because of the content of the tablets and because the “mystery” surrounding Ventris’s death really isn’t. In the end, though, The Riddle creates a thought-provoking image of a world that disappeared from collective consciousness.

Blog Is Back? Part II

To my friends – thank you for your loving concern. I compiled these entries in mid-December, and things are better, though not one hundred percent. This one came from December 19 and 21.

  • I’m in a place where concentration has become a problem.
  • Will I decorate? Under duress.
  • Next day: I’ll keep on writing here as long as I need to climb out of the abyss. Concentration is crawling back, but I still lie paralyzed even with an early bedtime.
  •  Crawling through a few chores, a little research, some practical stuff.
  • Walks help, but the sun has been in hiding or half concealed so I don’t get the benefit of full rays – which gave a grand total of UVF of 1 today.
  • Feeling worse in some ways, better than others.
  •  So if I were blogging what would it be? Political idiocy? No. The latest terrorist stuff? No. Maybe an entry on Tim Seldes, who represented Mother’s works for years and continued to represent us both until he sold Russell & Volkening. The obituary was suitably laudatory, but without the caption I would never have recognized him.
  • Buds on the magnolia have joined Cromwell’s blooming forsythia. Scary.

Blog Is Back?

I started composing this in mid-December to explain to myself why I stopped writing.

  • emotional exhaustion and just exhaustion. It’s all I can do to get up, which is later and later each day. Writing in the journal helps and is something I do anticipate, once I’m over the pain of actually getting out of bed. And it seems to be enough at this point. Beyond that, life is just mechanical. Lost interest in my current research project.  What’s left? ‘
  • Trying to take a walk, do laundry, avoid stressful thoughts that have me spiraling down some black hole.
  • Consumed by reading and responding to email makes for a loathsome time.
  • Avoid thinking about people with serious illnesses.
  • Try to celebrate the good things. A big donation to the James Family docu fund. The dry ice tucked into the corner of the plate of sashimi. The shock of seeing forsythia in bloom in Cromwell.
  • Aim to live the advice that Chaplin Dennis McCann posted: “Do not let other people’s actions destroy your inner peace.” My inner peace has gone utterly missing. Worse, the usual books and Sudoku hold little appeal.

That was day one of my struggle to sort things out.