Saturday, April 30, 2011

Building a better bookcase

Take some birch plywood boxes, stack them in a gridded storage system, and incorporate a diagonal staircase for kitty that can be set up backwards or forwards. Voilà: you have Corentin Dombrecht's Cat Library, a sweet little modular bookcase. Watch it come into being:

Now for some books to fill it up with! It's always worthwhile to spend time with the visionary Margaret Atwood (Moral Disorder; The Tent), one of the smartest writers ever. Also Canadian, and on many a shortlist for best short story practitioner working today, is Alice Munro  (The View from Castle Rock).

And if you'd like to begin adding some DVDs to the stacks, I recommend Almodovar's Broken Embraces (Spain)—an intensely dramatic and beautifully acted ensemble piece with lush colors and opulent sets. Opening with a long, atmospheric take of a gospel funeral that watchers of Treme will relate to, Pete Kelley's Blues is set in the Depression and is notable for its time (the '50s) for a nonpatronizing view of African Americans. Jack Webb as the lead (he also directed) has several equal-footing interactions with Ella Fitzgerald's character. The highlight for me, however, was Peggy Lee's screen time, both as singer and actress. She must have brought all of the painful memories of her abused childhood to bear on her heartbreaking portrait of a woman consumed by hopelessness and despair. 

Friday, April 29, 2011

Riffin' on the Royals

Windsor Palace has tried valiantly to put lid on wedding memorabilia:
"With the exception of carpets, cushions, wall hangings and head scarves, 
Royal Devices MAY NOT be used on textiles [which includes articles of clothing, 
including T-shirts, drying up cloths and aprons]."

…but can they honestly expect to control the crazed demons of commerce in the US and China?
When QE II was crowned, the royal press office did not use a website, Facebook, Twitter, youtube, etc.—nor was it deemed disrespectful to smush out cigarettes on the faces of Elizabeth and her consort on commemorative ashtrays!

Both tasteful and un, souvenirs of the event come by the thousands, including thimbles, key rings, crockery, posters, and heaps of wedding-watching party favors, such as tiaras, pajamas, and even masks (scary!). George Vlosich's Etch-A-Sketch portrait of the couple took 80 hours to complete... time well spent?
Before they went out of business, Woolworths jumped the gun with the mug at left (what in God's name is on her head ... laurel wreaths?), in addition to some mysterious “prince-shaped candies” (were they akin to chocolate babies?)

In any event, we can be sure that by the blessed end of the festivities, oodles of atrocious headgear will have been bought and paraded. Witness a typical photo, below left, of the Princess Royal at a garden party.

If your interest has been duly piqued by the whimsies and wacky ways of the British Isles, you should check out The Anglo Files: A Field Guide to the British.
"The princess who mistook a cake for a hat"

Elizabeth on a tin, before she became a frump.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

A fond farewell to a stupendous singer

Besides her breakout hit "Poetry Man," Phoebe Snow wrote and sang some of the best songs in the pop universe, including "Harpo's Blues," "Love Makes a Woman," "Every Night," "Two-Fisted Love," and "I Don't Want the Night to End." Alternately shimmering and earthy, her voice was utterly distinctive yet adaptable to folk, rock, blues, and jazz. She was from a Jewish family, yet she had so much soul that many people thought she was African American.

What joy! Two powerhouses, Linda Ronstadt & Snow, perform "It's In His Kiss" on SNL in 1979.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The blues are brewin'!

Here's a tribute to Dogfish Head Brewery (in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware) and "Hellhound on My Ale"—their "super hoppy Robert Johnson–inspired brew with organic lemons." YUM!

With music by solo performers Johnson influenced (e.g., Rory Block, Taj Mahal, Gregg Allman, Deborah Coleman) and anthologies such as the Time-Life Treasury and Alligator Records' 40th anniversary collection, Daedalus has the blues covered!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Four minutes of bliss

Cello virtuoso Yo-Yo Ma's collaborations with artists from other disciplines are legion. Filmmaker Spike Jonze caught this fluid and poetic interlude featuring Ma and street dancer Lil Buck, set to Saint-Saëns' “The Swan.” (The music starts about 40 seconds in.)

 Daedalus currently has bargains on Ma playing everything from baroque to Appalachian to film music—and of course the cello suites of Bach, cornerstone of the cello repertoire.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Graphic pizzazz & ornamental beauty

The seismic cultural shifts covered in ABC of 20th-Century Graphics can be seen in these examples. The first two show lettering and vignettes on covers executed with Behrens-Kursiv typeface in 1907, while the second represents the many avant-garde movements that had arisen by 1924. This profusely illustrated book would get anyone's creative juices flowing.
Whereas modernist graphic design can often mean hard, stark edges and angles, the collages in The Theater of Insects are imbued with exquisiteness and nuance. Photographer Jo Whaley "animates the inanimate" with her colorful, phantasmagorical stagings. "The appearances of insects range from those of menacing aliens to those of creatures of ornamental beauty," she writes. "Their ingenious structures and designs are unique visual qualities that inspire awe." Whether a moth looking like it's costumed for a fairy ballet or a beetle that resembles an item of African decoration, these images beguile and surprise. 

Sunday, April 24, 2011


Paul seemed OK with it, but Little Milly secretly thought that Easter Egg hunting wasn't all it was cracked up to be.  Fervently hoping she'd never have to face the bird that had laid this particular egg, she longed for those bygone days of biting heads off of chocolate bunnies....

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The teeming brain of Nick Belardes

Belardes, the author of Random Obsessions, is a Gleaner with a capital G!
Joyce with patron Sylvia Beach
Did you know that
*    200 bands worldwide perform songs relating to the Harry Potter series?
*    Huckleberry Finn was self-published?
*    James Joyce had a canine phobia? (To fend off possible attacks he almost always sported a cane, the famous "ashplant" of Stephen Dedalus.)
*    Oscar Wilde employed a surrogate to send out locks of hair to admirers?
*    During WWI, the Brits executed 306 men for cowardice or desertion?
*    There's such a thing as "foreign accent syndrome"? And no, Sid Caesar did not suffer from it, but in 1941 a Norwegian woman with head trauma did, and was discriminated against for the rest of the war for sounding like a German.
*    The aptly named horny goat weed works just as well as Viagra in lab experiments? (The Chinese came up with that one …. & it's a darn sight better than rhinoceros horns and other assorted nostrums.)
*    Vinegar helps bruising and toothpaste insect bites? (not yet tested by yours truly)
*    Manuka honey from New Zealand can kill ~250 bacteria strains, and it helps heal burns? (ditto)
*    Sufferers from Capgras syndrome firmly believe their family members—and even their pets—are imposters? "One woman, looking into a mirror and seeing an imposter, screamed and called herself a hussy." (A 2006 National Book award winner for fiction, The Echo Maker by Richard Power's centered on the affliction.)
Well, I only knew the last one ….how about you??

Friday, April 22, 2011

"I'm NOT acting!!!"

Joan & clone
So protests Hollywood icon Joan Crawford to her lover and then her daughter in two key scenes of Mommie Dearest. After what the former Lucille LeSueur went through to get to the top (and to perch there precariously until her box office plunged), it's not too surprising that the line between real life and playacting may have become a tad blurred.

I had never seen the film before, but I'm glad I did so via this "Hollywood Royalty Edition" DVD. Faye Dunaway throws herself (sometimes literally) into a role that she later refused to discuss, possibly because critics jeered at some of the more over-the-top scenes. The fellow cast members in the Special Features all maintain she was great. Director John Waters, connoisseur of the outrageous—who provides a delicious running commentary on the entire film—agrees, pointing to the kabuki-like nature of  Faye/Joan's rants while in the throes of what appears to be borderline personality disorder on top of OCD.

Favorite scenes include the one in which Joan—looking fabulous and every inch a star—strides into Louis B. Mayer's office and is told her MGM days are over. When she bravely says she'll send her people to clean out her bungalow—which she'd occupied for decades—Mayer says her things have been removed while they've been talking. Not only that, but the shmuck refuses to walk her to her car! Later we see Joan winning the Oscar for Warner Brothers' Mildred Pierce, which was some consolation/payback for her (although not for the long-suffering Christina, who endured several psychotic episodes while Mommie D fought for the part). (Has anybody seen HBO's Mildred Pierce? How does it compare?)

In another scene of scrappy bravado, Joan tells Pepsi's Board of Directors "Don't f*** with me boys!" when they try to can her after her husband dies. "You drove Al Steele to his grave, and now you're trying to stab me in the back? Forget it. I fought worse monsters than you for years in Hollywood. I know how to win the hard way." 

The cover of the James M. Cain novel, reprinted with a still from the movie. It was Cain's friend Kate Cummings (mother of the actress Constance) who provided him with the point of view of a devoted single mother with two children to support.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

I can't believe she said that!

Anne Tainter is a smarty pants and proud of it. Although an equal-opportunity satirist (witness her Eartha Kitt–like tigress), she delights in skewering white bread America. Often goony and glazed-looking, Taintor's captioned men, women, and children reflect the underbelly of the American dream as well as the truth behind the images fed to us by glitzy world of advertising.

Some cards have a postmodern spin (e.g., a '40's redhead with a horrified expression captioned "Had she really hit Reply to All?!?!?!!!"), whereas others have texts along the lines of what rebellious 50s poet Anne Sexton would have communicated had her thoughts emerged in little white strips instead of in tortured torrents of verse. Oozing attitude, Taintor's subjects can also be quite saucy in their attire as well as their quips. At the moment, Daedalus has a goodly sampling of Tainter notecards suitable for birthdays or just for fun. Hurry though, because they're disappearing faster than pigs in a blanket at a Tupperware party!

Crocodile tears and buccaneers

"I'm a sentimental sap that's all...."
I trust I'm not giving too much away by revealing that the answer to the question posed in the title of the book What Made the Crocodile Cry (subtitle: "101 Questions About the English Language") is that their tear ducts spew due to the enthusiasm with which they masticate. Ewww … 
On a more savory note, "buccaneer" derives from the tradition of cooking wild oxen and boars on a "boucan" (barbecue) in the West Indies, a favorite hangout of pirates and other assorted swashbucklers.

"Gone ashore for boar..."
 "Steal my thunder" comes from a theatrical device for creating same that was appropriated from its inventor, whereas "short shrift" describes a no-frills confession given to convicts on the way to execution.

Who knew that "serendipity" is often chosen as Britain's favorite word, behind "nincompoop" and "discombobulate"? And can you imagine the U.S. having such a survey? This loverly coinage came to us from Horace Walpole, who based it on a fairy tale called "The Three Princes of Serendip" in which the heroes make a series of accidental discoveries that prove fortuitous.

For me, the picturesque term "skid row" always conjured up a scary scene in which the populace and their environs had slid down to the bottom of the social ladder. Turns out that's about right. Apparently, skids were used to propel logs down to lumber mills, and the phrase was applied to the cheap bars and other establishments that sprang up in the vicinity.  Any favorite word origins you care to share?

Monday, April 18, 2011

Now THAT's "Glee"-ful!

Gwyneth Paltrow's new cookbook spoofed by EvilMediaEmpire:

For more down-to-earth fare, check out Double Take: One Fabulous Recipe, Two Finished Dishes; Feeding Vegetarians and Omnivores Together, a savvy idea whose time has come!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Behind the scenes at the circus

Having watched the PBS documentary on the Big Apple Circus and recently attended a touring show of the Cirque du Soleil, I was quite intrigued by these glimpses of circus folk rehearsing sketched by Toulouse-Lautrec more than a century ago.

During the winter of 1899, the artist was recovering from a severe mental and physical collapse at an asylum outside of Paris. Luckily, the Molier circus was preparing a show nearby, and he was able to make a series of crayon drawings both on the spot and from memory.

From the privileged informal vantage point of TL's "backstage pass," we observe performers entering and exiting the arena as well as rehearsing their vertiginous flights around it. I especially love the way the balance needed for the jockey to maintain his perch is reflected in the harmonious balance of the composition. All 39 of these masterful works (especially the ones of horses!) appear in Toulouse-Lautrec's The Circus.