Growing Up Bank Street

Growing Up Bank Street coverGrowing Up Bank Street: A Greenwich Village Memoir
Donna Florio
NYU Press (March 9, 2021), 239 pages
Kindle edition $14.72, Amazon hardcover $16.99

This book appeared as a full-page advertisement in The New York Times Book Review and I thought that it would be exactly the sort of thing I would enjoy reading. I was correct.

Donna Florio grew up in an apartment at 63 Bank Street in Greenwich Village. Her parents worked in the world of opera, so between that and the location of her home she had quite the eclectic upbringing. As an adult she returned to that building and lived in a different apartment, so she has had a lifelong familiarity with the building and the neighborhood.

She writes both about the people in her own building and about the people in the larger Bank Street district of Greenwich Village. Her own building housed people in show business, the mentally unbalanced, and even for a time a major figure in the United States Communist party. As an adult, one of her upstairs neighbors loved cooking gourmet meals for the tenants.

Bank Street residents in other buildings included CBS newsman Charles Kuralt, Episcopal Bishop Paul Moore, the novelist John Dos Passos, and Marion Tanner, the woman on whom Auntie Mame was allegedly based, Tanner’s nephew having written the original novel. He both assisted her financially with income from the book, the play, and the musical, and at the same time denied that she was the inspiration for Auntie Mame.

Florio writes:

quoteArcheologists, movie stars, trust-fund babies, and college professors did indeed live next to secretaries and sanitation workers.

Bank Street was a fascinating place filled with fascinating people and Florio brings it to life.


our newest Echo device

I have written about our Amazon Echo devices and about how much we enjoyed having two of them, one in the kitchen and dining area, and one in the bedroom. I also wrote that I was content to continue enjoying the trusty internet radio in my office until I learned that the service that powered it was going away, making it for the most part useless.

Amazon Echo ShowI wrote that I thought about getting a new internet radio that would be powered by a newer service, but as I considered the matter I decided that an Amazon Echo could play all the stations and streaming services that an internet radio could, and that it could do a lot more. With the Echo I can ask Alexa to play the NPR hourly news or to give me the weather forecast. I can ask it to play my current audio book or give me the score of yesterday’s Dodger game.

Deciding to buy a new Echo, it only made sense to go for quality. I wanted an Echo Show so I could have the visual element as well. I bought a third generation Echo Show 10. It’s pretty amazing. It has excellent speakers and the screen is sharp and clear. I like seeing the artist and song title on KNX-FM 93 (clearer and more easily readable than on my internet radio) and that information plus a nice image of the album cover on my Pandora stations. I recently signed up for Amazon Music and am amazed at the breadth of choices available. I can ask Alexa to play just about any classical work, and when I play popular songs most of them display the lyrics.

Echo Show MusicOf course it’s not perfect. Sometimes it’s easier to punch a button than give a verbal command, and sometimes Alexa doesn’t understand what you want. Podcasts are a particular problem. If I ask Alexa to play either of the two astronomy podcasts, StarDate or Earth and Sky, I get something Star Trek related for StarDate and a mystical podcast of the same name for Earth and Sky. But then Alexa has no problem bringing up John McWhorter’s podcast on linguistics, Lexicon Valley. Too bad he’s going to stop doing it.

Still, though, for the most part all three of our Echo devices work very well.

The new Echo Show was an indulgence, to be sure, but given the income I’ve been getting from my contract writing work, I decided I could use some of that money for fun stuff. And this is really fun stuff.


The Possessed

The Possessed coverThe Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them
Elif Batuman
Narrated by the author
Penguin Audio, March 14, 2017
Print edition: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (February 16, 2010)
$24.46 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit

I had read and enjoyed Elif Batuman’s novel The Idiot and picked up this volume based on a brief mention in The New Your Times Book Review. Batuman specializes in Russian literature, as you might surmise for the book’s subtitle. As to the book’s content, the subtitle does not mislead.

Batuman opens the book describing the beginning of her post-graduate studies at Stanford, and how she came under the influence of the leading scholar of the Russian author Isaac Babel, of whom I had never heard until listening to this book, and how said scholar hooked her into the study of Babel. Babel wrote in the first part of the twentieth century but fell afoul of the Soviet authorities and was executed in the Stalin era. Batuman writes about her encounter with Babel’s two daughters, who are invited to Stanford for a Babel conference. I learned far more than I cared to about Isaac Babel.

She also writes about a summer spent in a language immersion program in Uzbekistan, about lost luggage, and the people she encounters there. Passing off her boyfriend, who wanted to tag along, as her husband caused her to make up some fabrications about their nonexistent marriage.

We hear a lot about other, better known, Russian authors and their writing: Tolstoy, Chekov, and Dostoevsky. Since Russian writers write a lot about grim topics such as illness, poisoning, and death we hear a lot about those topics. Too much. I didn’t know that there was a debate about whether Tolstoy’s death was due to poisoning or that depending on one’s own views one could be labeled a Tolstoyan (or not).

Batuman writes about academic politics, the unsettled lives of graduate students at Stanford, and her own untidy personal life. Although I did not enjoy The Possessed nearly as much as her novel, the book was nonetheless interesting reading, especially since we hear it in the author’s own voice.


A Thousand Ships

A Thousand Ships coverA Thousand Ships
Natalie Haynes
Harper (January 26, 2021), 368 pages
Amazon hardcover $19.28, Kindle edition $10.99

There have been some excellent retellings of classical mythology by women published in the last couple of years. Madeline Miller wrote both Circe and The Song of Achilles. Now Natalie Haynes has released A Thousand Ships, which tells of the events (mostly) after the Trojan War through the perspective of women. It was originally published in the United Kingdom in 2019, but Harper just published it in the United States this year. Terry got to the book before I did, buying it at Barnes and Noble, so in this instance I read the hardcover rather than the Kindle edition.

Haynes opens the novel with the sack of Troy by the Greeks after the Trojans brought the famous wooden horse inside the city walls. This is interesting because the Iliad does not mention the Trojan Horse at all. The Odyssey mentions a “hollow horse” three times in passing, in such a way that Homer must have assumed that his audience knew the story. It is only later sources that provide us with any sort of full account.

Nonetheless, this approach works because Haynes tells the story mostly from the Trojan perspective, from the viewpoint of the losing side, and in particular by the women of the losing side. She does not, as you might guess, portray the Greeks in a positive light.

We encounter a lot of women in the book. Some women we meet only in a single chapter, and others intermittently throughout the book. Then there are the Trojan women as a group, drawn from the chorus in the Euripides play by that name, who sit on the seashore awaiting their fate by the conquering Greeks. We see them several times.

Helen, the cause of all the fuss, has no chapters of her own and plays a very small role in the novel. In Haynes’s world Helen had willingly headed off to Troy with the Trojan Paris, though the mythology we have is ambiguous as to whether she really was infatuated with Paris or whether he took her to Troy against her will.

The one Greek woman Haynes features prominently is Penelope, wife of Odysseus, waiting for him at home in Ithaca. She becomes increasingly snarky as she writes him letters after hearing the stories from the bards of his long, circuitous journey home. She is neither understanding nor patient.

Also impatient is the muse Calliope, who wants the poet to pay more attention to the women and less to the men and the fighting. What Homer doesn’t do Haynes fulfills.

We are all the better for that.


the end of the road for my internet radio

When I tried to tune in to 70s on 7 on my Grace Digital internet radio on Saturday it displayed a message saying it could not contact the SiriusXM server. This was not a huge surprise to me as I had received an email from SiriusXM some months ago saying that “it has come to our attention that you may be streaming SiriusXM at home using a Grace device” and telling me that my Grace Digital device would no longer be supported. When I went on to Google to confirm that I had remembered correctly I saw that I had, but I also saw that my radio would be completely inoperable by late May. It’s a first-generation device that uses a third-party service and that is all going away. (“The managed shut down…will be completed by May 21st, 2021.”) That was a surprise.

We had purchased two Amazon Echo devices, one for the bedroom and a second for the kitchen and dining area as our ancient Recoton 900 MHz wireless devices kept performing less and less well. But, I thought, I still have my internet radio for my office. Guess not.

internet radioI bought my Grace Digital internet radio in January 2014 while we were still in Gilroy to replace another internet radio that used a rather unreliable technology. I kept it in my office and loved it, as over-the-air radio reception in Gilroy was less than optimal. It moved south with us in 2015 and remained in my office here, where over-the-air radio reception is also far from ideal.

There was rarely a day when I was in my office, either there or here, when I did not turn on that radio. And attached to the Recoton 900 MHz transmitter we used it every single evening with the Recoton wireless speakers in the dining area and the bedroom until we replaced them with our Echo devices.

So now what? I thought about getting a current generation Grace Digital radio, but I don’t quite trust those folks, and was not encouraged by the misused words (“effected” instead of “affected”) and other typos on their support web page.

I realized that an Amazon Echo device (our third) could do everything an internet radio could do, plus a lot more. I have always relied on my internet radio for a quick glance at the time when it was not playing, so I needed a visual display. I decided to buy a new Echo Show 10.

It’s supposed to be here tomorrow. I’ll let you know how it works out.


Summer People

Summer People coverSummer People: A Novel
Marge Piercy
Open Road Media (April 12, 2016), 477 pages
originally published by Summit Books, a Simon and Schuster imprint (June 1, 1989)
Kindle edition $10.99

After finishing my previous nonfiction book I was looking for something countercultural. I knew I could find that by turning to Marge Piercy. I selected Summer People and was not disappointed. Now this was not sixties counterculture. The narrative in the novel takes place roughly contemporaneous with the publication of the book in 1989. Piercy mentions the amber screen of a computer. Many computer screens running the good old DOS operating system (yes, I know that’s redundant) in those days had black-and white or blue-and-white screens, but my computer at home in 1989 had an amber screen.

This counterculture existed (in the novel) on Cape Cod. Susan and Willie were married. Susan was a seamstress and fashion designer. Willie was a sculptor and carpenter. Dinah, a musician and composer, moves into the house next door, which shared the driveway with Willie and Susan’s house. They quickly ended up in a three-way relationship. All went well until Susan, with her misperceptions and inflated sense of self-importance, insisted that the arrangement end. That triggered a domino effect that drives much of the novel’s action.

I wouldn’t refer to Piercy’s work as literary fiction, but she knows how to develop a plot and create believable, three-dimensional characters. The women are strong and not dependent on men. Piercy’s novels have always had a strong feminist tone, and her women take ownership of their own sex lives and responsibility for birth control. (One male character, in fact, provides his own condom).

The title Summer People is a bit of a misnomer, as the book is not about the people who arrive at Cape Cod in time for Memorial Day and leave right after Labor Day, although they do play a role. It’s the year-round residents, Willie, Susan, and Dina that are central to the novel.

So while not great literary fiction, Summer People is enjoyable reading with a serious message about how people treat each other, even if the conclusion ties things together just a little too neatly.


Butter Chicken

I love Indian food, as you may know if you’ve been reading this blog for a while. Sadly, my options are limited these days. Our local Indian restaurant here in Hemet was short-lived, though Terry and I did all we could to support it. We could drive thirty minutes south to Temecula and go to an Indian restaurant there called Mantra, but their primary business is buffet, and such service is, as you well know, not currently allowed in California. (Besides, neither Terry nor I are comfortable with restaurant dining right now.) And then, to add insult to injury, some time back my favorite brand of frozen Indian lunches, Tandoor Oven, disappeared from the freezer cases of the two stores here that carried it.

So what’s left? Right. Fix it yourself.

Butter ChickenI have a lot of Indian dishes in my recipe database, and multiple versions of some, such as Chicken Tikka Masala and Butter Chicken (two recipes that are hard to distinguish from each other). Last week I decided I had gone too long without Indian food and planned Butter Chicken for Friday. I chose a version that recently appeared in Food Network Magazine.

I didn’t follow the recipe exactly; I rarely do. The recipe called for sautéing an onion while adding some of the spices, but I can’t do that as Terry is allergic to onions. The recipe called for tomato, so I blanched and peeled a fresh one. I threw the tomato into our Dutch oven along with tomato paste (in the recipe), and a small can of tomato sauce (not in the recipe). I then added all the specified spices.

I had previously browned the chicken with the indicated spices. I cooked the tomato mixture down, threw it in the Vitamix, and put it back in the Dutch oven. I put the chicken back in and let it simmer for a while. At the last minute I added heavy cream and butter.

Meanwhile, I had been cooking a cup of Basmati rice on another burner.

The result? I was happy. Terry was pleased. If you can’t go out for Indian food you can certainly make it at home. It is a lot of work, but the finished product is well worth it.


Dusk, Night, Dawn

Dusk, Night, DawnDusk, Night, Dawn: On Revival and Courage
Anne Lamott
Riverhead Books (March 2, 2021), 223 pages
Kindle edition $11.99, Amazon hardcover $15.61

Reading an Anne Lamott book is like reading a book by an old friend. I have been reading her books for many years, and she was a regular guest on the late, lamented West Coast Live radio program in San Francisco.

She wrote this book before the change of administration in Washington, so perhaps there is a bit of a pall over it that wouldn’t have been there had she finished the book after January 20. Nonetheless, Lamott is not about negativity; she writes about hope and help.

If you’re familiar with Anne Lamott you know she is a recovering alcoholic, and she speaks honestly about addiction and recovery. She writes about how she has been helped, about she has helped others, and about how we can help each other. Lamott (who is less than a year younger than me) was married for the first time in 2019, and she worries her husband may discover that she’s not the person he thought he married. He seems to not be troubled by that.

Anne has a way of putting things in perspective, even when the world seems impossibly difficult:

quoteThe search for the holy grail has been called off. No grail to find, no code to break. All along, it turns out that there was only the imperfect love of a few trusted people and that in troubled times, like heat waves, epidemics, and blackouts, most people bring their best selves. No ultimate answers, only the blessings of friendship and service; silence and music, the beauty of the seasons and skies, creation, in art and life’s phases—birth, death, new life. Sigh.

Lamott tells us, “Maybe the poet was wrong when he said the center cannot hold. Maybe it can and does hold. Maybe the center paradoxically holds everything, like the gravity well in which our teeny galaxy is held.”

She writes, “Terrible losses befall those we love, and yet we are saved again and again by a cocoon of goodwill, evolution, and sweet milky tea. That is plenty of center for me.”

And for me too.


A History of European Art

History of European Art coverA History of European Art
William Kloss, M.A.
Independent Art Historian
Instant video purchased on sale at $69.95
If the course is not on sale, check back. A sale price will come around again.

This is a very long course at forty-eight lectures. Most Great Courses packages are twenty-four or thirty-six lectures. But then it covers a lot of territory. The survey begins with Carolingian and Ottonian art in the late Middle Ages and goes all the way through to art in the twentieth century between the two world wars.

There was a lot of interesting material in this course. It was amazing to learn how much art moved around. Works that were designed as altarpieces were taken down and moved elsewhere, sometimes simply to the museum on the site of the church, sometimes to another country. If the altarpiece was made of multiple panels it was often cut up into its separate components.

I had learned bits and pieces about European art here and there, but I’ve never taken a comprehensive course. I had never thought about how much of late medieval and Renaissance art was on one of two themes: either classical history and mythology or biblical material. I noticed that the art in that period bore a stronger resemblance to the physical world than that beginning in the late nineteenth century with the advent of impressionism. The subject matter also changes as artists began to paint based on their own inner ideas rather than on commonly known topics. As Professor Kloss says, “We have left the world of shared meaning behind.”

Kloss is knowledgeable but has an odd manner of presentation. He almost never looks at the camera, but looks at his notes or computer monitor, or seems to peer off into the middle distance. Nonetheless, he knows his stuff and is well qualified to present this engaging material.


Our Anniversary

Terry and I celebrate our twenty-seventh anniversary today, and we’re still as crazy about each other as ever.

decadent dessertCelebrating our anniversary the last couple of years has been interesting. Two years ago, for our twenty-fifth, I had just gotten out of the hospital after a setback following my surgery, and was very limited in what I was allowed to eat. Last year we were in the early days of the pandemic, but as I recall what got in our way was the weather. We had planned on going to Dattilo’s, the first-class Italian restaurant on the other side of town. We had ben hit with some heavy rain, however, and didn’t want to drive across town with flooded streets and intersections. So we had dinner at the bistro in the lodge here at Four Seasons. It was a Thursday, which just happens to be their Italian night, so that worked out.

This year, still in the midst of the pandemic, we are limited to outdoor dining if we want dinner in a restaurant, and it’s too wet and cold for that. Our plan is to have dinner from Dattilo’s at home courtesy of Grubhub. Terry found a marvelous decadent dessert at the grocery store. That will work well.

The Jewish Passover Seder contains the words, “Next year in Jerusalem!” My thought for our anniversary: “Next year in Cambria!” (With dinner at the Sea Chest, of course.)