Monday, June 12, 2017

The Diary of Anne Frank

75 years ago today, in 1942, Anne Frank received a blank book for her 13th birthday, and soon started writing her diary in it.

From a 2014 article about Anne Frank's living relatives (which I've previously blogged):

Eva Schloss, a playmate of Anne Frank’s in Amsterdam whose mother later married Anne’s father, recalls an 11-year-old who hopscotched, shot marbles, gossiped and talked so much her friends nicknamed her “Miss Quack Quack.”

Anne also had an intense interest in clothing, boys and Hollywood stars like Deanna Durbin.

“When I told her I had an older brother, she said: ‘Oooh. I must come to your apartment and meet him.’ ”

Anne was a lively girl who could be something of “a busybody,” Monica Smith said about her young second cousin — and she often had ink stains on her slender fingers. . . .

The memories, unremarkable as they may seem, are about a girl whose diary and death from typhus in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp at 15 have made her perhaps the Holocaust’s foremost symbol of slaughtered innocence. People are fascinated or moved by the slimmest morsel of information about her. When watershed Holocaust dates come up on the calendar, like the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the pogrom in Germany and Austria on Nov. 9 and 10 in 1938, Anne’s surviving relatives and friends are invited to share tidbits as well as tell their own often harrowing stories. . . .

Mrs. Smith’s parents put her on the Kindertransport to Holland that rescued 2,000 German-Jewish children, though one-third did not survive the Nazi occupation. Mrs. Smith, who was about 15, spent weeks quarantined in a barracks sleeping on a mattress on the floor, was taken to a more rural camp, and then to the Burgerweeshuis, an orphanage housing 75 refugee children.

Anne and her father, by then living in Amsterdam, visited the orphanage a dozen times, sometimes bringing treats. Mrs. Smith also saw Anne’s older sister, Margot, who was “totally different” — quiet and demure. Mrs. Smith remembers staying in the Franks’ modern apartment block on the Merwedeplein square and visiting Otto Frank’s spice-company offices on Prinsengracht — where he was to arrange for “the secret annex” that his family hid in for two years. And she remembers how engaged Anne and her father were with each other.

“The two of them were very close,” she said. . . .

Eva Schloss, 85, is an elegant, articulate woman who worked as a photographer, ran an antiques shop, raised three daughters and wrote a 1988 book, “Eva’s Story: A Survivor’s Tale by the Stepsister of Anne Frank.” She was born Eva Geiringer in Vienna on May 11, 1929, a month before Anne. Hers was an assimilated family that owned a shoe factory. In school, children were separated for religious classes.

“Everybody knew who was a Jew,” she said. “So after the Nazis came, we were immediately attacked and beaten up and the teachers were watching it and not doing anything.”

Her family ended up in Amsterdam, also living in the Merwedeplein apartments across from the Franks. The two girls were in a loose gang that played together in the square. Anne, she said, had a leader’s personality; she was a “big know-it-all,” occasionally “domineering,” who demanded attention.

When the Nazis occupied Holland in May 1940, Jews were forbidden, among other things, to go to movies.

“They showed the Disney film ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,’ and the Christian children talked about it,” Mrs. Schloss recalled. “For us it was already a tragedy.”

In July 1942, when the Nazis began calling up Jews like Margot and Eva’s brother, Heinz, for work assignments in Germany, the Frank and Geiringer families went into hiding, with the Geiringers splitting up among a succession of Dutch resistance families. In May 1944, Mrs. Schloss’s family was betrayed and wound up in Auschwitz. Only she and her mother survived.

Otto Frank, knowing his wife had died, was also liberated at Auschwitz and returned to Amsterdam to await news about his daughters. Mrs. Schloss’s mother and Otto became friends and eventually lovers.

“He looked like a ghost,” she said. “One day he came to us with a little parcel. It was a diary.

“It took him three weeks to read it,” she remembered, and “he said, ‘I didn’t really know my own child.’ ”

Sunday, June 4, 2017

The war on breasts




(Full disclosure: I'm friends with Sarah Siskind, one of the writers and editors of this Reason video.)

Thursday, June 1, 2017

We were talking about the space between us all

It was 50 years ago today!

The Beatles released their seminal concept album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, on June 1, 1967. (Well, that's what many sources say, although Wikipedia says it was released on May 26 in the UK and June 2 in the US.)

Comments on some of my favorite songs from the album:

With a Little Help From My Friends” has one of my favorite bass lines ever. Part of what’s great about it is that it’s so simple, so easy to play. This band wasn’t about showing off the individual members' ability to play their instruments; it was about them coming together to bring us a seemingly endless stream of ideas (musical and otherwise), and allowing us to bring our minds in tune with theirs. Ringo Starr gave what many would call his finest vocal performances on this song; his usually modest baritone suddenly switches to a triumphantly soaring tenor high note at the end. One nice thing about Beatles songs sung by Ringo is that he had great backing vocalists in John Lennon and Paul McCartney.




She’s Leaving Home” might seem overly sentimental or corny, but I don't mind that. The lyrics are wonderfully detailed; someone (Elvis Costello?) remarked that you don't normally hear the word "clutching" on a rock album. I love the interaction between Paul and John in the chorus, representing the main character's mother and father, respectively: Paul sings the title in falsetto, while John adds his distraught questions/comments in a lower register. I also love how a line that would seem prosaic on paper, “Waiting to keep the appointment she made,” becomes wound up with an exciting sense of possibilities as a result of the quivering vibrato of the strings. (Unusually for the Beatles, the orchestral instrumentation was arranged not by George Martin but by Mike Leander.) The wordplay of the father's hapless line, "We gave her everything money could buy/Bye bye," brings back the theme of the early Beatles hit "Can't Buy Me Love," while showing how much the band has matured since then.

"Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" is a strange John song based on a 19th-century poster, which switches midway into a waltz overlaid with kaleidoscopic calliope music, thanks to George Martin carrying out John's instructions to conjure up a circus so vividly you can “smell the sawdust.”

The album's only song by George Harrison, “Within You Without You," is the spiritual centerpiece of the album — a beautiful merger of Indian and Western classical music. (Cultural appropriation? Yes please!)




After the reprise of the album's title song, which would feel to someone hearing the album for the first time like it must be the last song, the sound of the audience fades out as the band starts playing an encore, "A Day in the Life" — the artistic pinnacle of this album if not the whole band. It starts in a dream-like state as John sings about disconcerting imagery (with outstanding drumming by Ringo), before being interrupted by an orchestra with each instrument chaotically sliding from a low, quiet note to a high, loud note. That crescendo segues into a more relaxed, upbeat section in which Paul sings about the details of everyday life, using a melody that has some resemblance to John’s but in a different key and more choppy (staccato) and repetitive, which is appropriate to talking about such ordinary details (“woke up... drank a cup...”) — in contrast with John’s melody, with its legato, drawn-out quality that's more evocative of dreaming. One seemingly mundane detail in Paul's section is that he “had a smoke,” which at first calls to mind a man having his first cigarette of the day as he sets out in the morning, but then takes on a druggy meaning when he says he “went into a dream.” At that point, Paul sings in a more legato, John-like style over a disorienting sequence of chords, during which we have a hard time telling what key we're in (this is effective regardless of whether the listener knows music theory), eventually leading to John repeating the first line of the song ("I read the news today..." — which now feels like one more detail about an ordinary morning as in Paul's section). After John's last line (one of the defining statements of '60s rock: "I'd love to turn you on"), the orchestral crescendo happens again, and the song abruptly ends on a very loud and sustained piano chord in the same key as Paul’s section, seemingly closing the album by bringing us firmly back to reality. But there's one more surprise . . . before we're left to contemplate the genius we just heard.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

My 20 favorite Soundgarden songs

In the week since the death of Chris Cornell, the great singer/songwriter/guitarist of Soundgarden, I’ve listened to the band’s last four albums straight through: Badmotorfinger (1991), Superunknown (1994), Down on the Upside (1996), and King Animal (2012).

I knew I’d be reminded of old favorites and hits, and that I’d rediscover some more obscure songs I’d forgotten. And yet I still felt overwhelmed by the ocean of extraordinary material — relentlessly innovative and challenging, often jagged and angular, mostly heavy and dark, occasionally with gentle or bright spots, but never tranquil, always disturbed and searching for something better.

So here are my 20 favorite Soundgarden songs, with the first letter of the album each song is from in parentheses, e.g. Badmotorfinger = (B). (And yes, I did listen to some of their other songs, but I found that all their highlights are from these four albums; their earlier work feels unripe, not like the band we love.)

I have to say, this makes a pretty great playlist — the equivalent of a double album, with the two discs being 1-10 and 11-20.

1. Outshined (B)

2. The Day I Tried to Live (S)

3. Spoonman (S)

4. Black Hole Sun (S)

5. Somewhere (B)

6. Fell on Black Days (S)

7. Slaves and Bulldozers (B)

8. Burden in My Hand (D)

9. My Wave (S)

10. Bones of Birds (K)

11. Superunknown (S)

12. Mind Riot (B)

13. Rusty Cage (B)

14. Been Away Too Long (K)

15. Pretty Noose (D)

16. Jesus Christ Pose (B)

17. Dusty (D)

18. Head Down (S)

19. Taree (K)

20. Black Saturday (K)


“I’ve always liked depressing music because a lot of times listening to it when you’re down can actually make you feel less depressed.” — Chris Cornell





(Photo of Chris Cornell by Marina Coelho.)

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Why the terrorists hate us

Within the last couple years, ISIS or people associated with it have apparently attacked a pop concert in Manchester, England, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and a rock concert in Paris, France.

These are not the kinds of attacks you'd carry out if your goal were to protest US foreign policy. This is what you'd do if you hated great Western countries for our freedom. There is no way to appease the mass murderers' demands without giving up our whole culture.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The problem with social criticism

So much "social criticism" that's considered brilliant when phrased at the societal level ("our lives have become increasingly purposeless and devoid of meaning because ____") would seem like a clear symptom of depression if it were phrased at the individual level ("lately my life feels pointless and meaningless because ____").

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Annie Hall

Annie Hall was released 40 years ago today, on April 20, 1977.

A friend of mine once said he found the movie so sad it's difficult to watch. And I can understand that — it has an understated but heart-breaking pathos. But it's also probably brought more joy to more people than any other Woody Allen movie.

Woody Allen has said he doesn't think this is one of his outstanding movies. And it's not my favorite movie of his either. But when he dies, it'll be the first movie mentioned in every obituary. It was nominated for all five Academy Awards (best picture, director, actor, actress, and screenplay), and won all of them except best actor. It was also the only time Woody Allen has won best director out of over 40 movies.

There's so much to say about this movie's innovative techniques (subtitles of the characters' thoughts, split screens to show how the two main characters live in different worlds, animation, etc.); witty and insightful dialogue; affecting performances by Diane Keaton and Woody Allen; nice minor roles for Christopher Walken, Shelley Duvall, Carol Kane, and Paul Simon; and one great line by a young Jeff Goldblum.

But for now I'll just say that I lurve this movie, I luff it, it's transplendent, it's too wonderful for words.

The trailer:




The first meeting:




The Christopher Walken scene:




The subtitle scene (the "15 years" line refers to how long Woody Allen's character has been in therapy):




Diane Keaton accepting her Oscar:

Monday, April 17, 2017

The problem with talking about cultural appropriation

Even if what gets called "cultural appropriation" is often bad, calling it "cultural appropriation" doesn't explain what's bad about it. On the contrary, labeling something "cultural appropriation" distracts from any other criticism that might have been made of that thing, because once the attention-getting phrase "cultural appropriation" is invoked, all the attention turns to debating whether cultural appropriation is inherently bad. And the idea that it's inherently bad is pretty easily refuted, so the object of criticism gets off easy. Meanwhile, the kinds of people who are drawn to the "cultural appropriation" critique have spent their time and energy on what will ultimately be a losing argument (because the consequences of consistently rejecting cultural appropriation would never be accepted). They could've spent that time and energy putting forward a more powerful critique, but they didn't, and now that time and energy — finite resources — are lost.